1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2007  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 24/01/2007   
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Contents >> Forestry and Fishing >> Article - Fishing in Australia's Antarctic waters


The following article is based on material contributed by the Australian Government Antarctic Division, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, the Australian Customs Service and the Sea Power Centre - Australia, Defence (September 2006).

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982) (UNCLOS) came into effect on 16 November 1994. The convention governs all aspects of oceans’ management, including the delimitation of maritime boundaries, and environmental management and conservation of the natural resources of the oceans. This is achieved through the creation of various maritime boundaries, each having differing rules over what activities may take place in each zone.

The key zone for fisheries is the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), where a coastal state has sovereign rights to the natural resources in the zone. The coastal state is responsible for the management and conservation of fish stocks in the zone, and is also able either to fish this stock directly or allow others to fish within it.

On 1 November 1979, Australia declared a 200 nautical miles (nm) Australian Fishing Zone (AFZ), and on 1 August 1994 declared a 200 nm EEZ to gain sovereign rights over other natural resources within this 200 nm zone. Australia continues to use the term AFZ but it is defined in such a way as to be consistent with the EEZ. The Australian Fisheries Management Agency (AFMA or Fisheries) manages the AFZ under the Fisheries Management Act 1991 (Cwlth).

Australia has a number of offshore territories, all of which generate an EEZ. Those in or near the Southern Ocean are Heard Island and MacDonald Islands (HIMI), about 2,160 nm south-west of Perth (Western Australia) and Macquarie Island about 810 nm south of Hobart (Tasmania). In 2004-05 only three vessels were allowed to fish in the HIMI area, as it is regarded as being fully fished, with only small numbers of fish able to be caught legally. In 2004-05 only one vessel was allowed to fish in Macquarie Island waters as the zone is also regarded as being fully fished. There has been no direct evidence of illegal fishing in this area.

Mackerel icefish, courtesy Australian Fisheries Management Authority.Mackerel icefish, courtesy Australian Fisheries Management Authority.


The Southern Ocean, which surrounds Antarctica, consists of the southern-most parts of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. In the sub-Antarctic - between 50 and 60 degrees south - there are many small islands including HIMI and Macquarie Island. The HIMI are the only example of an untouched Antarctic ecosystem in the world. They provide valuable breeding and feeding areas for many species of marine mammals and birds, while supporting a vast array of unusual invertebrates and fish. In recognition of the rich conservation values, Australia has declared a portion of the HIMI EEZ a marine reserve.

AFMA manages the HIMI fishery, which lies entirely within the area of the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). These remote waters are managed under Australian legislation in accordance with Australia's obligations under CCAMLR and other international agreements, including the UNCLOS.

An ecosystem-based fisheries management approach is used by both AFMA and CCAMLR. This management approach is directed at addressing target species sustainability, reducing bycatch (which is the unwanted part of the catch) and maintaining the predator/prey relationships between the target and bycatch species (including mammals and seabirds). The overarching goal is to protect biodiversity and minimise the impact of fishing on the marine ecosystem.

In setting catch levels and bycatch limits in the fisheries, AFMA uses the latest scientific advice and annual fish stock survey results. These catch limits are reviewed annually and are set at levels that the fish stocks and ecosystem can sustain. Various research programs have been initiated to better understand the effects of fishing on bycatch species and the wider ecosystem and to assess ways of minimising bycatch in the fishery.

Longlining - the most common fishing method - can cause serious problems in that it has historically caught large numbers of albatross and other seabirds. Over recent years AFMA and the fishing industry have worked to reduce the unintended catch of seabirds. A number of innovative measures are now used on all longline vessels. These have resulted in a significant reduction in the number of seabirds caught.

Demersal longline
Demersal Longline, courtesy Australian Fisheries Management Authority.

Fishing by trawling does not usually harm seabirds but tends to catch fish in the smaller size range and, in some circumstances, trawls may damage the seabed. A recently commenced research project being undertaken by the Australian Government Antarctic Division aims to observe the impact of fishing gear on the sea-floor and marine ecosystem by fitting deep sea cameras to fishing lines and nets. The project will run for four years and will provide invaluable information on the Antarctic marine ecosystem as well as how it reacts to fishing gear.

Demersal trawl
Demersal trawl, courtesy Australian Fisheries Management Authority.


Fishers in the sub-Antarctic region target two species of fish, the Patagonian toothfish and Mackerel icefish. HIMI provides a legitimate fishery worth about $30 million (m) a year that directly employs up to 150 people in the capture and post-harvest processes.

The Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) is a highly-prized species distributed throughout the sub-Antarctic oceans. It is found on shelves around islands and submarine banks. Toothfish are bottom-living, in depths of 300-2,500 metres, but move off the bottom on occasion to feed.

The Patagonian toothfish is one of the two largest species of fish occurring in the Antarctic, reaching up to 2.2 metres in length and up to 100 kilograms in weight. It is believed the Patagonian toothfish can live for up to 50 years, possibly longer. Toothfish are known to be eaten by sperm whales and elephant seals, but the extent of this is unknown. The fish are usually too large to be eaten by other types of predators.

Illegal fishing of the Patagonian toothfish has become a serious problem in recent years resulting in a marked reduction in the stocks of toothfish in some areas (see Illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing). Mackerel icefish (Champsocephalus gunnari) live in an average water temperature of 2 degrees Celsius. Icefish thrive in the cold due to the production of a unique chemical within its body that works like anti-freeze. Interestingly, icefish have no red blood cells. Although this makes for a pale looking fish (with clear blood), it does not reflect adversely on the delicious taste of this fish. The Australian Mackerel icefish fishery extends from 13 nm offshore of HIMI to the 200 nm Australian EEZ around the islands. The area within 13 nm of the islands is protected from fishing.
In 2004-05 the legal catch comprised over 2,500 tonnes of Patagonian toothfish and over 1,200 tonnes of icefish by two companies which collectively operated three vessels. Toothfish is a high value, quality fish and is mainly sold to the restaurant trade. Much of Australia’s catch of Patagonian toothfish and icefish is exported to the United States of America and Japan.

Patagonian toothfishPatagonian toothfish, courtesy Australian Fisheries Management Authority.


Commonly referred to as poaching, illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing is a threat to the conservation of sub-Antarctic fish stocks. IUU fishing is intrinsically unsustainable as it results in catches that far exceed sustainable limits set for legal fishers and, if it continues unchecked, will cause severe depletion of the spawning fish stock. IUU fishing uses longlines with little or no attention given to avoiding bycatch. This leads to high levels of mortality among seabird populations, some of which are already endangered. Another serious problem with poaching is that there is almost no data reporting for IUU catches, making decisions about the status and future management of fish stocks very difficult.

IUU fishing severely undermines national and international management and conservation measures implemented by Australia and other coastal states and international regimes such as CCAMLR and UNCLOS, whose goals are to ensure that only sustainable utilisation of the world's oceans occurs. Illegal fishing within the HIMI EEZ also challenges Australia's sovereignty.

Australia enforces its sovereign rights in its EEZ through the regulation of licensed foreign fishing vessels and direct measures to stop any illegal fishing within its EEZ. While this is a management issue for AFMA, enforcement of these regulations is the responsibility of the Australian Customs Service (Customs), with support, as required, from the Australian Defence Force (ADF), principally the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). The process for enforcing sovereign rights in the EEZ is threefold: surveillance to determine what is happening in the zone; interception of intruders; and legal action to emphasise the sovereign nature of the EEZ. The distance of all these fisheries from the Australian mainland make the surveillance and, more importantly, the interception of any intruder problematic as the intruder may have time to leave the area before interception occurs. Surveillance of waters in the Southern Ocean is difficult and challenging. The Royal Australian Air Force has, however, been highly successful in this task and provides ongoing support in the Southern Ocean.

Australia's efforts in increasing monitoring, surveillance, and enforcement activities since 1997 have lead to the apprehension of foreign fishing vessels (FFVs) fishing illegally within the HIMI EEZ . In October 1997, the helicopter-capable frigate HMAS Anzac deployed from Fremantle with the tanker HMAS Westralia in support as part of Operation Dirk. While on patrol in HIMI waters, a number of ships were boarded, with RAN personnel inserted either by boat or by Seahawk helicopter and two FFVs were escorted back to Australia to face legal action. In February 1998, the guided missile frigate HMAS Newcastle and the Westralia deployed as part of Operation Stanhope. On this trip, one FFV was apprehended and returned to Fremantle to face court. During 1998-99, AFMA used the Cape Grafton for civil surveillance in these waters, conducting a number of trips.

In April 2001, the South Tomi, a Togo-registered, Spanish-owned FFV was caught illegally fishing in the HIMI by the civilian vessel Southern Supporter, chartered by AFMA. When challenged, the South Tomi initially headed towards the port of Fremantle, but once on the high seas it turned towards Africa. The AFMA vessel chased the ship across the Indian Ocean for 14 days, while RAN personnel flew to South Africa and, with the assistance of the South African Defence Force, boarded the ship which was subsequently returned to Australia where the crew faced court. The skipper of the South Tomi was fined $136,000, the illegal catch of 116 tonnes of toothfish was sold for $1.4m and the boat was forfeited. On 29 January 2002, the guided missile frigate HMAS Canberra and the Westralia deployed as part of Operation Sutton in order to apprehend three fishing vessels. In this operation, two FFVs were apprehended and returned to Fremantle.

In August 2003, the Customs and Fisheries vessel Southern Supporter undertook the longest civil pursuit in Australian maritime history following the detection of the Uruguayan-flagged Viarsa 1 in the Australian EEZ. The Southern Supporter chased the Viarsa 1 for more than 21 days through the icepack, beyond the tip of South Africa and into the South Atlantic Ocean. In a display of international cooperation in fisheries enforcement, South Africa and the United Kingdom also sent vessels to join the pursuit. Australian Customs and Fisheries officers, assisted by fisheries officers from South Africa, boarded the vessel after a 3,900 nm chase. The Viarsa 1 was initially escorted back to Cape Town (South Africa) from where the ADF sailed the vessel back to Australia (under Operation Gemsbok).

In January 2004, the helicopter-capable frigate HMAS Warramunga deployed as part of Operation Celesta and apprehended the Maya IV illegally fishing in HIMI waters. The underway replenishment ship HMAS Success deployed and refuelled Warramunga before commencing its own patrol of these waters. No other FFV was sighted, but during the ship’s return to Fremantle, located an FFV 350 nm south-east of Heard Island and warned it off, as there was no other reason for the vessel to be in the vicinity unless it planned to fish illegally.

HMAS Success returning from patrolHMAS Success returning from patrol, courtesy Department of Defence.

In December 2003, the Australian Government announced a program of full-time armed patrols of the Southern Ocean as part of a comprehensive plan to protect Australia's fisheries and enhance cooperation with countries which have interests in the region, particularly France and South Africa.

Customs received $89.2m in the 2004-05 Federal Budget to lease a suitable patrol vessel and in late-2004 contracted the 105-metre Oceanic Viking. The armed vessel conducts Customs and Fisheries patrols of the Southern Ocean on a full-time basis in virtually all weather conditions. It is fitted with two deck-mounted 0.50 calibre machine guns and high speed pursuit tenders. It carries an armed Customs boarding party, Fisheries officers and other officials. A fully-equipped medical centre is staffed by an Australian Government Antarctic Division doctor. The Oceanic Viking also carries a full civilian crew and steaming party capable of sailing any apprehended IUU vessel back to an Australian port for further investigation.

The program has been so successful that the Australian Government allocated an additional $217.2m in the 2005-06 Budget to continue the Customs-managed armed Southern Ocean patrol program until 2009-10.

When not on duty in the HIMI, the Oceanic Viking also patrols Australia's other Southern Ocean EEZs. In September 2005 it apprehended the foreign fishing vessel Taruman, suspected of fishing illegally inside Australia's Macquarie Island EEZ. The vessel was boarded with the agreement of the Cambodian Government, the flag state responsible for the vessel, and escorted back to Hobart (Tasmania).

In 2006 Customs continued its long-term commitment to protecting the Southern Ocean by performing regular armed patrols and working closely with other nations who are committed to protecting Southern Ocean fisheries. These include France, South Africa, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

In particular Australia is strengthening its level of cooperation with France, whose economic zone around the French territory of Kerguelen Island adjoins the HIMI EEZ. A Maritime Cooperation Treaty on surveillance in the Southern Ocean came into effect in February 2005. Australian Customs and Fisheries officers now participate in French patrols of the Southern Ocean and vice versa. This cooperation allows virtual year-round patrol coverage of the Australian and French zones in the Southern Ocean EEZ and is a further deterrent to IUU vessels.

The Uruguayan-flagged fishing vessel Viarsa 1 was pursued across the Southern Ocean, beyond the tip of South Africa and into the South Atlantic Ocean for more than 21 days, in August 2003.  Customs.The Uruguayan-flagged fishing vessel Viarsa 1 was pursued across the Southern Ocean, beyond the tip of South Africa and into the South Atlantic Ocean for more than 21 days, in August 2003. Customs.

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