Brazen crews asking for directions, spare parts, as pandemic fuels wave of illegal fishing


A defence expert says resources need to be bolstered to block an influx of illegal foreign fishing crews stripping marine life in Australian waters during the pandemic.

It comes as northern fishermen report increasingly brazen behaviour by their Indonesian counterparts, who are asking locals for directions and even engine parts to do repairs.

National data obtained by the ABC reveals the scale of the increase in illegal fishing boats being intercepted since the pandemic began.

In 2018-19 just five boats were intercepted and four the following year, but that figure jumped up to 85 boats in 2020-21.

In the past three months alone more than 100 boats have been intercepted.

There is concern the fishermen are doing long-term damage by walking on delicate coral and stripping the reefs of marine life like trepang, shark and fish.

Fishermen chatting to illegal crew

Darwin-based commercial fishing skipper Billy Barker said there had been a big increase in foreign boats in the past year.

“When we see them we steam towards them and they’ll usually pull their lines up and start heading back towards Indonesia,” he said.

“Recently I had a motorised fishing vessel approach me and he needed an engine part — he was waving around a broken belt in the air, so we gave them a belt and some water and food and it was all very friendly.”

A young man in a singlet lifts a crate on board a boat
Billy Barker says his crew regularly interacts with illegal fishing boats in northern waters.(Supplied: NT Seafood Council)

Mr Barker said it was frustrating to see foreign fishers openly stripping seafood in Australian waters.

“We’re having to spend a fair bit of time now chasing them around and taking their [location] marks and relaying that to the Border Force, and they just don’t seem concerned about the fact they’re being seen doing the wrong thing.”

Another commercial fisher based in Broome said an Indonesian crew pulled up near his boat in mid-October and spoke briefly.

“It was really bizarre. They were saying hello and seemed to be asking about the reef,” the skipper said.

The fisherman, who asked not to be identified due to government contracts, said he reported the location to state and federal fishing authorities.

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Indonesian fishing boats have been spotted operating in the protected Rowley Shoals Marine Park off the Kimberley coast.(Supplied: Jonas Klein)

COVID the cause

It is thought the spike in activity is the result of increased poverty in Indonesia due to the pandemic and reduced enforcement also linked to the health crisis.

Border Force said in a statement that “Australia continues to respond safely, quickly and decisively to foreign fishing activity in Australia’s northern waters”.

It initially denied the pandemic had reduced enforcement, but the ABC has since confirmed the federal government has stopped detaining and prosecuting illegal fishing crews due to the risk of spreading COVID variants.

Authorities are instead seizing fishing equipment and escorting boats out of Australian waters.

In the past 18 months they have also destroyed 27 illegal fishing vessels, but only in circumstances where the crew can be safely moved onto another departing boat.

No increased terrorism risk

John Coyne, the head of northern Australia policy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the government might need to consider “reorientating” resources from Operation Sovereign Borders, which is focused on stopping asylum seeker boats.

“Any time there is an act of stealing natural resources, then that’s a national security issue that needs to be considered,” Dr Coyne said.

A boat with a white sail on the water
An Indonesian fishing boat sighted within the Rowley Shoals Marine Park off the WA coast.(Supplied: Harley Cuzens)

“This is where we do have to recognise that irregular and illegal fishing and underreported fishing is … a transnational, serious, organised crime that has impacts on the environment and biosecurity.

“But it’s difficult, because there are capacity issues — they can only surge and increase their operations so much.”

Dr Coyne said he did not believe the influx equated to an increased threat of terrorism nor would it precede an increase in so-called people smuggling operations.

It is understood the federal government is developing an advertising campaign targeting fishing communities in Indonesia to try to deter crews from entering Australian waters.


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