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Six Chinese trawlers were caught fishing illegally 100 miles inside Australian territorial waters. They are now anchored in Darwin Harbor awaiting prosecution.
Photo: Chris Johnson

November 9, 2001
Not Enough Fish in the Sea
  Real Audio
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Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from Darwin Australia where we are currently anchored near several different types of boats. There are sailboats, tugboats, and naval vessels. However, by far the most numerous type are illegal fishing boats that have been caught fishing inside Australian territorial waters. Today, local officials told the crew of the Odyssey that throughout the 'dry' season, there is a constant stream of boats that are seized in Australian waters and brought back to Darwin. Fines appear to be harsh, boats are confiscated while boat owners and captains can even face jail terms depending on the type and severity of the offence. Yet these boats continue to come in huge numbers every year.

The management of fisheries worldwide is becoming increasingly difficult. The Odyssey crew either heard of, or have observed first hand, illegal fishing activities in many of the countries we have visited so far. Australia is definitely no exception.

Being the world's largest island continent with a relatively small population, means that the majority of the coastline is remote and uninhabited. This makes the job of patrolling and protecting the rich fishing grounds virtually impossible. The combination of isolation, limited naval vessels and comparatively healthy marine ecosystems makes Australia an attractive target for illegal fishing boats, while the rich rewards from a potential catch seemingly makes it worth the risk.

World production of fish has been on a flat or downward trend since the late 1980s. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations once estimated that the potential catch of traditional fisheries was more than 100 million tons per year. This organization has now drastically revised that estimate, claiming we will never reach that potential unless the way we manage global fisheries is changed drastically.

Large-scale commercial fisheries are characterized by high catches, rapid growth and soaring profits for those who enter a fishery first. Such profit bonanzas attract more fishers and more vessels. As time passes, fishers have to work harder just to maintain their catch, let alone increase it. The numbers of fish that can be caught have their own biological limits, so fishers increase technology levels and fish with more boats for longer periods of time. The cycle of more effort being expended in the endeavor to chase fewer fish continues until increasing costs for fishers means they may have to leave the fishery or in some cases fish illegally in the protected or managed areas of other countries.

Many of the fishing boats captured and detained in Darwin pending trial are small-scale Indonesian artisinal fishers with no navigational or communication equipment that take whatever they can catch. Unfortunately their fishing practices often include shark finning.

During the 'dry' season, large numbers of small Indonesian fishing boats are caught fishing illegally withing Australia's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and seized by customs authorties.
Photo: Chris Johnson

Other boats are more coordinated and organized in their efforts. Often they have overfished stocks at home and are forced to move farther away. Less than two weeks ago, the Royal Australian Navy and the Australian Customs Service in a joint operation with the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) apprehended six Chinese vessels under Indonesian flags fishing 100 miles inside the Australian Fishing Zone. Six of the eight boats spotted by Coastwatch aerial surveillance were seized, though all are suspected of being part of a much larger group of vessels. Each of these boats had a fish holding capacity of 100 tons and a combined total of 600 tons. As alarming as these figures are, it is more disturbing when we consider that such activities are occurring 24 hours a day, every day of the year on a massive scale across all of the world's oceans.

As fish populations decline, the pressure to fish the remaining stocks increase while regulations to protect them can become so constrictive that people feel the need to break the rules. Michael Berrill, author of the book 'The Plundered Seas', states "As rules proliferate, cheating can be an excellent strategy for survival. A good cheater gets the benefits without incurring the costs - a free lunch. The cost is getting caught, and fishers weigh the seriousness of the penalty of getting caught against the rewards of escaping detection."


  • "Fish, Markets and Fisherman. The Economics of Overfishing.
    Iudicello, Weber, Wieland. Island Press 1999.
  • The Plundered Seas. Can the World's Fish be Saved?
    Michael Berrill. Greystone Books 1997.
  • Australian Fisheries Management Authority. (AFMA)
    12/01 Media release, 30 October 2001.

Log by Genevieve Johnson

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