Toothfish are one of the most lucrative catches for Australian fishermen. They've got a high oil content which gives them a rich flavour, they're full of omega-3 fatty acids, and they're nearly impossible to overcook. The fish are so valuable that in the mid 1990s, illegal toothfish hauls hit a completely unsustainable 100,000 tons a year.
These numbers have since fallen due to better policing, but a black market trade continues. Some poachers have recently taken to remote Antarctic waters 2,000 nautical miles south of Tasmania in order to find the fish. Average summer temperatures there hover around zero, so these boats are relatively high-tech, despite their use of outdated and controversial fishing techniques such as gill netting. Two boats, the Yongding and Kunlun, were both found this week in Australian waters by the conservation group Sea Shepherd.
Both ships are alleged by Sea Shepherd to be connected to the Spanish fishing syndicate Vidal Armadores, which is behind more than 40 cases of illegal fishing globally. They even have a history with suspiciously obtained toothfish. In 2003, one of the syndicate's ships was chased by Australian authorities for 21 days before they were brought to Australia for trial. The suspects were ultimately acquitted as nobody could prove whether their load of toothfish was caught in Australian waters.
Last month the New Zealand Navy pursued both boats but failed to board and apprehend them. Instead the cartel headed for Australian waters to deploy their nets just 50 nautical miles from Australia's Mawson base in Antarctica.
Dr. Julia Jabour, a specialist in Antarctic policy at the University of Tasmania told VICE that one of the reasons Australia hasn't aggressively pursued these poachers lately is due to the ambiguity of Antarctic territorial claims. "Australia considers these Australian waters," she explained. "But to any other country outside the Antarctic Treaty those borders are completely arbitrary."
Two days ago Sea Shepherd's ship Sam Simon took it upon itself to intercept the poaching vessels. The captain of the Sam Simon, Sid Chakravarty, spoke to VICE via satellite phone. "I can only think it is a lack of will from the government to continue to patrol these waters," he said. "This is Australia's economic zone and Australia has the right to the marine life and resources in these waters. Therefore they have the responsibility to patrol and ensure these waters are kept safe. I would just say it is a complete lack of commitment by the Australian government."
Dr. Jabour believes Sea Shepherd knows Australia can't act in the Southern Ocean but ignored the fact to attract media attention. "Sea Shepherd tells us that it's Australia's responsibility, but they only say that to get media attention," she said. "They know it's more of a story if they claim negligence by the government." She added that the Antarctica treaty of 1959 prohibits any military action: "You can't start a war with illegal fishing boats or Japanese whalers or even Sea Shepherd, even if you wanted to."
While toothfish stocks in South America have been ravaged by overfishing, populations in the Australian Antarctic have been deemed stable. A public nomination to list the species as endangered was rejected by the Australian Threatened Species Scientific Committee, which found numbers were sustainable. The committed did not that "illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing has been considered as the greatest threat to the long-term sustainability of toothfish."
Sea Shepherd will remain in the area with their two ships, the Bob Barker and Sam Simon.
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