Coalition Too Busy Chasing Refugees To Pursue Illegal Fishing Boats


The Greens and Sea Shepherd yesterday blew another hole in the sinking ship that is the Abbott government, attacking the Coalition for diverting resources to Operation Sovereign Borders which it promised before the last election would be dedicated to patrolling illegal fishing in the Southern Ocean.

“The government has broken their pre-election commitment to send its $150 million ice-rated Customs vessel to protect our precious Southern Ocean environment from these tooth fish pirates,” Greens spokesperson for Fisheries, Senator Peter Whish-Wilson said.

“Instead they sent this boat, designed for the sub-Antarctic, off to the tropical waters around Christmas and Coco Islands, as part of Operation Sovereign Borders to detain people fleeing persecution to seek a safer life in Australia,” he said.

The criticism came off the back of revelations from Sea Shepherd that two known illegal, unlicensed and unregulated poaching ships had been caught in Australian waters off Mawson Base in the Antarctic.

“It is not good enough that the Sea Shepherd has had to, yet again, do the Government’s job,” Whish-Wilson said.

It is, ironically, a job the government made an election issue of when it promised to secure the Southern Ocean against illegal fishing.

In a policy document, released before the last federal election, the government promised to “ensure that resources devoted to fighting illegal foreign fishing are not diverted to other activities”.

One of those ‘resources’, a specialised ship known as ACV Ocean Protector, was specifically nominated.

But that ship, the government’s Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) reveals, has in fact been used as part of Operation Sovereign Borders.

The MYEFO figures are corroborated by reports in The Guardian, which in May claimed Ocean Protector has been used as part of Operation Sovereign Borders since at least January.

The government’s backflip was brought into sharp focus earlier this week by revelations from Sea Shepherd that two illegal poaching vessels, Yongding and Kunlan, were operating in Australia’s Southern Ocean.

The two vessels were discovered as part of Sea Shepherd’s eleventh Ocean Defence Campaign – Operation Icefish – which is specifically targeting poachers fishing for Pategonian Toothfish.

The threatened fish, otherwise known as ‘white gold’, can bring in a haul of up to $60 million for poachers, and is being targeted primarily by Equatorial New Guinean and Nigerian poachers.

The Sea Shepherd Captain who discovered the two illegal vessels, Sid Chakravarty, had only just concluded a three-week clean-up operation of 70 kilometres of banned gillnets, abandoned by poachers.

The nets contained 14,000 fish, which weighed in at over 50,000 kilograms – much of it dead bi-catch.

An artist's impression of the Sea Shepherd's new ship

New Matilda spoke with Captain Chakravarty from his ship – which is pursuing the poaching vessels – on Monday.

Captain Chakravarty slammed the Australian government for “choosing to not take up the chase”, a decision which he says “directly resulted in the illegal vessels continuing to plunder Antarctica of its vulnerable toothfish populations”.

The two ships had fled from the New Zealand government last month after they were detected in the Ross sea, but not before New Zealand Authorities had collected evidence of the illegal fishing to be used in future legal action and secured an Interpol warrant against the ships.

Yesterday New Matilda questioned the Department of Immigration and Border Protection on whether the Australian Government had taken any action following Sea Shepherd’s revelations, but the department declined to “disclose further details about operational activity or the location of its assets”.

The government’s Marine Traffic website, though, does confirm that at 10pm Monday, almost twelve hours after Sea Shepherd discovered the poachers, the ship which replaced Ocean Protector (its sister ship, Ocean Shield) when it was decommissioned mid-way through last year, was anchored off Cocos Island to the North of Australia.

Whish-Wilson yesterday attacked the government for “sitting on its hands” while illegal fishing was taking place.

“Despite a recommendation from the tri-partisan Southern Ocean Senate Inquiry, and Customs promising two forty-day patrols this summer, there is no boat on the horizon,” he said.

It’s an attack which the government levelled at the ALP when it was last in office.

“The ACV Ocean Protector, which was previously responsible for patrolling the Southern Ocean, is instead intercepting illegal boat arrivals because of the Government’s failure to control Australia’s borders,” Michael Keenan, the shadow immigration and customs minister at the time, said in February 2013.

“Despite the prevalent threat of illegal fishing, including the Japanese whaling patrols and the highest number of Sea Shepherd vessels in the Southern Ocean, Customs has had to remove their patrol vessels because of significant budgetary and staff cuts by Labor,” Mr Keenan said.

Oh, how the tides have turned.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.