Fishermen say a surge in illegal fishing off the Western Australian and Northern Territory coasts must be a priority in discussions between Australia and Indonesia at next week’s G20 summit.
- The authorities are intercepting an unprecedented number of illegal fishing vessels in Australian waters
- The Australian fisherman says the impact of COVID on Indonesia’s tourism sector is not to blame
- There are concerns that illegal fishermen will die in Australian waters this cyclone season
It comes after Australian Fisheries Management Authority chief executive Wez Norris told Senate Estimates this week that there have already been 46 illegal vessels detected in Australian waters since June.
Western Australia is experiencing the largest surge in numbers with 42 in the state’s waters, while only four have been detected in the Northern Territory since June 30.
Meanwhile, it has been revealed that 337 illegal fishing vessels were intercepted in Australian waters in the 2021/22 financial year – 305 of which were detected in waters off the WA coast.
Mr Norris said the numbers were likely to rise due to the decimating impact of COVID-19 on Indonesia’s tourism industry.
But his opinion was disputed by Australian fishermen.
approach to “light-handed”
Darwin commercial fisherman Grant Barker said lax policies and border patrols meant repeated incursions were punished and encouraged fishermen to head south.
“It’s pretty clear that the light-handed approach to dealing with these ships doesn’t really solve the problem,” he said.
“The problem will continue until we take a tougher approach, which means burning the boats like we used to and sending them back.”
He said the Australian Fisheries Management Authority was quick to say that the impact of COVID on tourism in Indonesia has forced fishermen to take more risks.
“I would strongly disagree with that,” he said.
Earlier this year, a Pilbara commercial fisherman notified authorities of a suspected illegal fishing boat off the coast of Port Hedland.
“We are not sending a strong enough message back to Indonesia saying that if you are caught illegally in Australian waters or in an Australian Commonwealth Marine Park … we will take your boats away from you and destroy them and send you home.” he said.
“They’re just going further south in this case, which puts them into the Pilbara and further east into Australian waters and we’re finding them in places you wouldn’t think you’d find them.”
Fix ‘once and for all’
The waters off the northwest coast are well outside the Australian and Indonesian governments’ 1974 Memorandum of Understanding, or MoU Box, in the Timor Sea.
It includes parts of Ashmore Reef in the north of the Kimberley, and allows traditional fishermen and non-motorized fishing boats.
University of WA Adjunct Professor Vivian Forbes, who studies maritime boundaries, has previously called for more effective ratification of such protocols.
But he said next week’s G20 summit in Bali was an opportunity for Australian officials to seek dialogue on addressing illegal foreign fishing with the Indonesian government.
“I think it’s going to be up to us to take the bull by the horns and say let’s sit down and stamp this out once and for all,” he said.
“Next week could be an ideal opportunity when they meet in Indonesia … on the side.”
Future fatality fears
There are fears that Indonesian fishermen will continue to take risks to put food on the table as northern Australian waters transition into the monsoon season.
Earlier this year, nine fishermen died on Ashmore Reef when their boat was hit by a freak wave, having ventured out into dangerous circumstances due to their country’s dire economy.
“This year with a La Nina weather pattern and I think it’s going to be a very strong cyclone season, that kind of thing is likely to happen again because so many of these people are taking those risks and moving further east,” Mr Barker said.
“It is difficult enough for us to avoid cyclones and we have all the most modern equipment to monitor and avoid them, these people are caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and it can lead to a disaster”.
Meanwhile, Mining and Pastoral MP Stephen Dawson recently told the WA Parliament that the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions is working with the Department of Home Affairs, Australian Border Force and Maritime Border Command through response planning and joint patrols in the Kimberley region.