'Pirates' in the Ross Sea

23:51, Oct 08 2011
ARRR: The slow-growing, long-lived toothfish is worth big money on the blackmarket.

An international group of journalists says a suspected Spanish "pirate" fisherman has been illegally taking lucrative blackmarket catches in New Zealand's Ross Sea and on one occasion was let go when it came through Auckland.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists claims that two North Korean fishing boats photographed by the RNZAF in the Ross Sea were a flag cover operation for Antonio Vidal Pego of Vidal Armadores, a family-controlled Spanish company linked to more than 40 cases of alleged illegal fishing.

The consortium says a single vessel illegally taking toothfish can take a haul worth around $US83 million ($106m) in a season, despite controls on fishing by the multinational Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

New Zealand is on the front line fighting illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing.

"Since the late 1990s, New Zealand has undertaken aerial monitoring and surveillance of the toothfish fishery in the Ross Sea region," Fisheries Minister Phil Heatley said.

In April RNZAF spotted two North Korean-flagged ships, Xiong Nu Baru and Sima Qian Baru. The journalists say the vessels were re-flagged Armadores operations.


Heatley said he was not aware of a link with Armadores, but CCAMLR's list recorded a link with the Spanish. He said on New Zealand's report, CCAMLR has updated the vessel names and listed them as illegal ships.

"Further, New Zealand made diplomatic representations to the North Korea government, which subsequently deregistered the vessels."

The journalists report on a 2008 search of an Auckland-docked, Namibia-flagged ship, Paloma V, where fisheries officers took computer hard drives. It linked the ship to pirate fishing and Armadores through its Uruguay arm.

New Zealand let the boat go with a warning rather than face a complicated court action and it has gone on to extensive further pirate fishing, the consortium alleged.

Heatley admitted evidence was found linking the vessel to illegal fishing. He said the vessel owners went to the High Court to stop the government reporting the ship to CCAMLR and the government won, allowing the ship to be listed as an illegal vessel. New Zealand also reported the vessel to Namibia.

Heatley said illegal fishing was a global problem and signficiant efforts were being made to fight it.

"This includes a requirement that all catch from licensed vessels is subject to the CCAMLR electronic catch documentation scheme, which tracks legally caught toothfish and restricts the ability of [illegal] operators to get their catch to market... .

"[The Ministry of Fisheries] has very active and successful regional services and strategy groups that deliver patrol, surveillance, investigations, strategic and tactical intelligence, analysis, forensics and maritime planning, including in high seas fisheries where [illegal] fishing is a risk to New Zealand fisheries and will continue to do so," he said.

Sunday Star Times