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Losing the war against poachers
by Mathew Loh Ho-Sang
The Dominion Post

5th January 2004

The southern oceans are attracting increasingly organised groups of international syndicates determined to make millions by illegally plundering the rich seas of Patagonian toothfish.

It is estimated that up to 26,000 tonnes of the valuable fish are poached each year and with its flaky white flesh selling for up to $57 a kilogram in American, European and Asian restaurants, the trade is highly lucrative.

According to the Washington-based National Environmental Trust, nearly 80 per cent of the Patagonian toothfish sold globally is illegally caught.

Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry Antarctic Policy boss Trevor Hughes said New Zealand was determined to police illegal, unreported and unregulated toothfish fishing.

He said it was a tough battle as international syndicates were doing everything possible to stay ahead of those trying to enforce the law and prosecute poachers.

"Illegal fishing remains very, very serious," Mr Hughes said, adding that politics had limited the effectiveness of plans to counter toothfish poaching.

"An Australian proposal, with support from the United States and New Zealand, to have a central ship monitoring system foundered on a row between Britain and Argentina," he said.

A plan to have an official black list also fell over after Russia refused to agree.

"The Russians wouldn't agree to a black list simply because a good number of the vessels that would have been black-listed would have been theirs."

Mr Hughes said that working with the Russians would be a slow but crucial process.

"The Russians are definitely big players so it's an issue that won't go away and, yes, we do have concerns about the how they are working to police their own vessels."

Meanwhile, a report by the Coalition of Legal Toothfish Operators says there is mounting evidence that a network of Spanish-based fishing firms – including established companies and new entrants – has combined to share resources and exploit regulatory and government weaknesses.

This increasing organisation, the report says, means efforts by governments, licensed operators and the wider community to eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing have failed to stop poaching levels from growing during the past three years.

"It is hard to escape the conclusion that toothfish poachers have had little trouble finding ways around the measures taken by governments to restrain them in the last five years," the coalition says.

The report also identifies 42 boats that have been involved in toothfish poaching and says the true number will "certainly be more than that".

New measures and greater government commitment are required to confront this ongoing threat to the sustainability of toothfish stocks, legitimate fisheries and the southern albatross populations.

The report says traditionally independent deep sea fishers have set up "sophisticated business arrangements" to maximise profit and spread risk in the pursuit of illegal activities.

"This is what is conventionally known as `organised crime' and it is important that we call it for what it is, and that governments respond in an appropriate and commensurate way."

Though small in global terms, the annual haul of 26,000 tonnes of toothfish is worth up to $570 million.

And, according to the coalition, the main players in the illegal fishery are based around the northern Spanish province of Galicia.

The report identified Antonio and Tono Vidal and Florindo Corral and Florindo Otero as the main players in the so-called Galician syndicate which runs a fleet of 26 boats, most of which are registered in Uruguay.

"It is apparent the Galicians' success is predicated upon maintaining a compliant attitude on the part of relevant Uruguayan authorities and some officials," the report says.