Foreign illegal fishing boats on the increase, Torres Strait Islanders say, amid calls for an investigation

Foreign illegal fishing boats on the increase, Torres Strait Islanders say, amid calls for an investigation

Traditional owners in the Torres Strait have taken aim at border protection and fisheries authorities for what they say is a “lax attitude” to incursions by illegal fishing boats.

Key points:

  • Australian Border Force says it actively responds to reports of illegal fishing vessels
  • Traditional owners say illegal fishing is a major threat to the livelihood of Torres Strait Islanders
  • They believe the illegal incursions highlight a need to renegotiate a treaty with Papua New Guinea

A fisherman from Iama (Yam Island) this month reported seeing a suspicious vessel at Warrior Reef, about 30 nautical miles south of the Papua New Guinea (PNG) mainland.

Gur A Baradharaw Kod (GBK) Sea and Land Council chairman Ned David said foreign vessels were on the increase in far north Queensland waters.

He said sightings were reported to the Australian Fishing Management Authority (AFMA) and Australian Border Force (ABF) but believed there had been a lack of follow-ups.

Map of Torres Strait

Warrior Reef lies approximately 62 nautical miles from the tip of Cape York Peninsula.(Supplied: Google Maps)

“Multiple sightings should warrant an investigation by authorities, and justifies an increase in maritime surveillance,” Mr David said.

“These illegal vessels were able to enter Australian waters undetected and they’re a threat to biosecurity and border security.

“If not reprimanded, there is nothing stopping the illegal fishermen from returning to our waters and exploiting natural resources.”

Face of a bearded Torres Strait man in front of a busy

Ned David says illegal incursions pose a range of serious threats to Torres Strait Islanders.(ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

Mr David said illegal fishing was a major threat to the livelihood of Torres Strait Islanders who depended on commercial fishing as their primary income source.

Authorities respond

An ABF spokesperson says it “actively responds to reports of illegal foreign fishing vessels” but did not answer specific questions about recent sightings of foreign vessels in the Torres Strait.

“The ABF has a range of capabilities to detect, deter, and disrupt any unlawful activity in Australia’s maritime environment, and responds to any incursions by foreign fishing vessels operating in Australian waters, including in the Torres Strait,” they said.

Aerial view of multiple boats in ocean including Border Force patrol boat and small illegal fishing vessel

The ABF says it actively responds to reports of illegal foreign fishing vessels.(Supplied: Australian Border Force)

An AFMA spokesperson said the agency was seeking to meet with GBK and would not comment until discussions had taken place.

Calls to revisit treaty

Mr David said the foreign vessels that had been sighted were likely entering Torres Strait waters from PNG and were in breach of a decades-old treaty regarding management of the common border area.

“There are people camping on the reef at night, there were people camping on our islands at night, and that’s totally against any of the articles in the treaty,” he said.

“It’s a blatant disregard for the rules in play.”

Yam Island in the Torres Strait

A foreign vessel was spotted north of Yam Island in the Torres Strait in January.(ABC News: Mark Rigby)

Mr David believed geo-political sensitivities were to blame for a lack of willingness to crack down on illegal fishing incursions from Australia’s closest Pacific neighbour. 

“I fully understand that we’ve got to keep Papua New Guinea on-side … [and] not entertaining other foreign interests,” he said.

“But this is about First Nations people in Australia who are trying to survive.”

small dinghies moored in a harbour

Fishing is the lifeblood of the community at Iama, or Yam Island.(Supplied: Karl Neuenfeldt)

The Torres Strait Treaty was signed in December 1978 and came into into force during February 1985.

According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, both Australia and PNG had liaison officers, based at Thursday Island and Daru respectively, who consulted regularly on the implementation of the treaty at a local level.

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