Stoush brews over Russian fishing vessel
A high seas political stoush is brewing over a Russian-flagged ship that claims to be the world's largest fishing vessel.
New Zealand and others suspect the ship cannot fish at all and is instead creating fake data that will enable it to be allocated a legal quota in coming years.
Lafayette, a 49,367 gross ton converted oil tanker, passed through New Zealand's exclusive economic zone on February 16 bound for heavily over-fished South Pacific jack mackerel grounds.
Official documents show several countries have doubts about Lafayette, with China saying it was "quite dubious" and Chile saying its operations "seriously undermine trust and confidence".
The European Union demanded an investigation after French officials found its Hong Kong owners had lied about its fishing capabilities, while Wellington says Russia was not providing "full and accurate" information.
The South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (SPRFMO), based in Wellington, is co-ordinating the claims.
The multinational body came into force in 2012 in a bid to fend off a collapse of Pacific mackerel which has seen the stock fall from 30 million tonnes to just three million in two decades.
SPRFMO, largely the work of Wellington international lawyer Bill Mansfield, sets fishing quotas, in part, based on previous mackerel fishing history. So if the Lafayette claims to have caught a certain amount of fish, it is likely to be allocated a similar, or higher, quota again. Especially if the fish was not actually caught meaning scientists monitoring fish levels are misled to believe the present stock is after a quota catch.
Suspicions about Lafayette began 18 months ago.
SPRFMO papers say Russia advised in 2009 the names of the vessels it would send into the South Pacific, with Lafayette fishing "horse mackerel".
SPRFMO then saw a news story revealing Lafayette was a mother ship or processing vessel working with trawlers flying Peruvian flags. They wrote to Moscow asking if it was a mid-water trawler or a fish-processing ship.
Russia said it was a trawler actively fishing in the SPRFMO area.
But no catch data came from Lafayette so when it called into Papeete in January 2010, French authorities inspected it.
They told SPRFMO they "did not find any fishing gear or fishing equipment on board". Photos showed "clearly that the vessel has never fished" while its logs showed it had never been in the area it claimed it had fished.
Russia then filed a report saying Lafayette had taken 41,315 tonnes of mackerel.
SPRFMO said that "information was spatially and temporally inconsistent" with the ship's position reporting system.
A South American group, Centro Desarrollo y Pesca Sustentable, claimed that what was happening was a "race for over-reporting". Lafayette's catch was "a fiction".
France sent Moscow a diplomatic note saying it believed Lafayette was not fishing but was a processing vessel.
China expressed concern "about the legitimacy of catch figures" and Chile demanded that Russia explain.
Russia instead complained about the French inspection of the Lafayette, but offered no other explanations.
Meetings followed and a scientific group reported concern "at the possible double-counting of Russian and Peruvian-reported catches".
With Lafayette about to be banned from the region, Russia complained they were being obliged to provide far more information about the high seas than they were used to giving.
"It's a major burden, and there's a lot of information to process," a representative said.
Complaints "unjustifiably discriminate" against Russia, he said, as other fishing nations had not made proper reports either.
New Zealand's position was that the Russia data provided did not meet standards and there was no "unjustified discrimination."
As a result, SPRFMO ruled that Russia could not have any new quota.
Russia appealed to a review panel in the Netherlands and eventually won.
Now Lafayette is back, spotted by the US-based satellite monitoring group SkyTruth which has been hired by the Pew Foundation's Kermadec Initiative to watch fishing activity around the Kermadec Islands.
Lafayette sailed straight through the New Zealand economic zone - although it is not yet registered to fish or operate in the South Pacific.
SkyTruth data on Saturday had the ship about 1000 kilometres east of the North Island. It was barely moving but a fleet of fishing trawlers, Aurora, Pacific Champion, Pacific Hunter and Liafjord are moving to a rendezvous.
A Panamanian-registered tanker, Pacific Marchioness, is also sailing toward the fleet.
SPRFMO's Wellington-based acting executive secretary, Robin Allen, confirmed Lafayette was not on their lists of authorised ships.
"At this stage, we have not been advised by the Lafayette's flag state that it is authorised to fish in the SPRFMO area. You probably recall that fishing is defined widely in the SPRFMO convention to include transshipment."
Lafayette, while Russian flagged, is owned by Hong Kong-based Pacific Andes and their spokesman last week said it would not fish but would carry load from partnering catchers.
"It is not a fishing vessel and fishing quotas are set by the SPRFMO for the catcher fishing vessels it supports, and those quotas are not exceeded," the spokesman said.