A joint agency operation targeting illegal foreign fishing in the Torres Strait has led to the apprehension of seven illegal foreign fishing boats from Papua New Guinea and the return of almost one tonne of live sea cucumbers to Warrior Reef.
Sea cucumbers (also known as bech de mer) are considered a delicacy in most cultures in East and South East Asia and are highly regarded for their perceived health benefits.
The joint agency operation included the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (ACBPS), Royal Australian Navy, and the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA).
The fishing boats were located by HMAS Wollongong and a Customs and Border Protection helicopter and were intercepted on Friday, 22 November 2013, and Saturday, 23 November 2013, on the Warrior Reef, in the Torres Strait.
HMAS Wollongong, operating under the control of Border Protection Command, boarded four of the vessels on Friday and seized approximately 200 kilograms of live sea cucumbers, along with other catch, which included three giant clams. A further amount of live sea cucumber, believed to be in the vicinity of 200 kilograms, was thrown overboard by the foreign fishers.
On Saturday, HMAS Wollongong boarded a further three vessels and seized over 200 kilograms of live sea cucumbers and other catch, along with one large live sea turtle. An estimated further 350 kilograms of sea cucumbers was also thrown overboard by the foreign fishers.
Over the two days, the seven vessels and 60 crew members were detained and transferred to the custody of Australian Customs Vessel Holdfast Bay. The fishers have now been transferred to Papua New Guinea (PNG) authorities in Daru, PNG. The seven vessels are being held at Thursday Island by AFMA awaiting the outcome of prosecutions under PNG law.
Deputy Commander Border Protection Command, Terry Price, said the apprehensions were a direct result of joint agency cooperation to target illegal foreign fishing.
“This is one of the largest results we have ever had in the Torres Strait from a joint agency fisheries operation and I commend all officers involved in the detection, interception and apprehension of these illegal fishing boats,” Deputy Commander Price said.
“Through prompt action by the boarding parties and onshore authorities, these people will be prosecuted under Papua New Guinea law.”
AFMA General Manager Fisheries Operations, Peter Venslovas, said that these operations do act as a strong deterrent to illegal foreign fishing.
“AFMA takes illegal foreign fishing seriously and we work closely with other governments in the region to reduce this threat,” Mr Venslovas said.
“Our partnerships with Customs and Border Protection and the Australian Defence Force ensure that we can catch and deal with illegal fishers when they enter Australian waters.”
The seized sea cucumbers and large live sea turtle were all returned to the reef after the vessels were intercepted by HMAS Wollongong.
Press Release, December 05, 2013; Image: Australian Navy