‘Almost laughable now’: Fishers, farmers blast lack of enforcement on illegal fishing off northern Australia

‘Almost laughable now’: Fishers, farmers blast lack of enforcement on illegal fishing off northern Australia

Rubbish, abandoned campsites and reported sightings of illegal fishers off Western Australia’s north coast have sparked concerns that serious animal diseases could slip into the state’s $3-billion livestock industry.

Key points:

  • Industry groups are calling for harsh measures to be taken to deter illegal fishers
  • Australian fishers believe there are significantly more illegal arrivals than authorities are detecting
  • The agriculture industry says diseases could go undetected if they arrive in a remote area

Fishers working in remote waters off the Kimberley say illegal Indonesian fishers are regularly landing on the Australian mainland, harvesting sea cucumbers with trawl nets and leaving litter on beaches and the sea floor.

An Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) spokeswoman said the authority had recorded 211 foreign fishing vessels intercepted in WA waters since the beginning of the year, but many fishers who regularly work off the northern coast believe the number of arrivals could be much higher.

Vansittart Bay sea cucumber fisher Corrie Mcintosh said he was regularly finding noodle packets and water bottles with Indonesian writing strewn on the usually pristine beaches.

He said the amount of rubbish he was finding was increasing and led him to believe many fishers had regular contact with the Australian mainland.

A noodle packet with Indonesian writing.

Rubbish found in the water at Vansittart Bay.(Supplied: Corrie Mcintosh)

“A lot of it is very new, and some of it is disintegrated — the effort has been widespread for quite a while out there,” Mr Mcintosh said.

“It’s pretty daunting knowing that they can get in and land on Australia undetected.

“It’s almost laughable now — it’s been going on for a while, there’s been reports put in.

“Without pointing the finger, it’s like it’s fallen on deaf ears.”

In April, 11 Indonesian fishers were rescued from the Rowley Shoals off the Kimberley coast after Cyclone Ilsa destroyed their boat.

They were shipwrecked for six days without food or water.

AFMA said at the time it would not attempt to prosecute the men for illegally entering Australian waters.

Last month, 12 people were found in a remote part of WA after travelling by boat from Indonesia.

It is not known at this stage if they were fishers or asylum seekers, but without proper controls both groups could pose a biosecurity threat.

A sea cucumber on the sea floor.

Australian sea cucumber sells for about $350 per kilogram.(ABC Midwest & Wheatbelt: Chris Lewis)

‘More than we hear about’

On his most recent fishing trip to Vansittart Bay, Mr Mcintosh saw an illegal fishing crew.

“Where they were fishing they were touching the mainland, they were working on the mainland,” he said.

Mr Mcintosh and his crew followed the boat and were able to see dragnets that they suspected were used to catch sea cucumbers.

“There’s lots of reports of a number of boats in one fishing operation, up to four or five boats fishing the mainland, walking the mud flats, camping and living ashore,” he said.

“It’s a lot more than we are hearing about.

“[Border Force] are doing the best they can now that they’re there.

“There’s probably not been enough resources thrown at this issue.”

A cow in lambent light.

Australia is free of several livestock diseases present in Indonesia, but experts say it would not take much for that to change.(ABC Mid West Wheatbelt: Jo Prendergast )

‘It takes just one germ’

It is not just those involved in aquaculture who are concerned about the impacts of unregulated fishers.

The Kimberley Pilbara Cattlemen’s Association (KPCA) said the biosecurity risk illegal fishers posed was cause for concern.

“We’re very concerned particularly with the nearness of both foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) and lumpy skin disease (LSD) in our near-neighbours,” chief executive Bron Christensen said.

FMD is extremely contagious in livestock and can be carried on footwear and clothing, as well as in food.

LSD is spread primarily via biting insects.

Indonesia is responding to widespread outbreaks of both diseases and an outbreak of either could cost Australia billions.

Composite image of pieces of Indonesian rubbish found at a suspected illegal fishing camp.

Rubbish discovered at a suspected illegal fishing camp last year.(Supplied: Steve Hinge)

The extremely remote nature of WA’s north-west only adds to the concern, because a biosecurity breach could go unnoticed for a considerable time. 

“It’s the tyranny of size,” Ms Christensen said.

“But we are ensuring Kimberley and Pilbara pastoralists are aware of what to look for and what to do if there is an incursion.”

A man with white hair wearing a hat looks stands in front of a golden paddock.

Tony Seabrook says it is time to tighten up border security.(Four Corners)

Pastoralists and Graziers Association president Tony Seabrook described the situation as “very disturbing”because of the presence of livestock diseases in Indonesia.

“It takes just one germ to come into our country — just one,” he said.

“Finding refuse on the beach indicates they are way, way too close … We need to make clear to them this is just not on.

“The most worrying aspect of it would be if [disease] got into the feral pig population.

“It could be in there for quite a long time before we found out about it and it would be very difficult to get rid of it.

“Take the boats and burn them — it’s harsh, but it’s a message that would spread all over Indonesia and they’d stop.”

Water bottles on a boat floor.

Rubbish found on the usually pristine Kimberley coastline is being collected by fishers.(Supplied: Corrie Mcintosh)

An Australian Border Force (ABF) spokeswoman said the authority had noted an increase in illegal fishing activity.

A number of agencies, including Maritime Border Command and AFMA run aerial, land and sea surveillance with targeted operations.

The ABF and Australian Defence Force also intercept illegal fishers at sea.

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