Image of AFMA officers standing near a foreign fishing vessel being burned

BlueWater Magazine Issue 127

While tuna and billfish don’t have passports, they are hard core international travellers, often migrating across oceans. To protect fish stocks, in addition to the work that the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) does within Australian waters, we also have a strong presence in international compliance operations in waters adjacent to the Australian Exclusive Economic Zone. Compliance with international management arrangements is vital to ensuring the health of these highly migratory species for both recreational anglers and commercial fishers both in Australia, and in our region.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Australia generally has jurisdiction to manage fisheries to 200 nautical miles from our coasts (see figure 1), referred to as the Australian Fishing Zone ( NB: Australia’s fishing zone is the world’s third largest). On the high seas beyond this 200 nautical mile limit, most fisheries are managed cooperatively between countries through Regional Fisheries Management Organisations. Australia works closely with other countries in strengthening management arrangements for species in the Indian Ocean and the Southern Ocean, in addition to working closely with our northern neighbours. In the Pacific Ocean, a number of these bodies exist - the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) is just one and is responsible for the management of tuna and billfish.

Taiwan, Japan, China and other countries all fish the high seas to the east coast of Australia, in close proximity to the Australian 200 nautical mile limit, and have fished these areas for many years. These boats are likely fishing the same populations of tuna and billfish that are caught by both commercial and recreational fishers in Australia. Because of this connection, AFMA has a very keen interest in ensuring that they play by the rules.

Around 60 per cent of the world’s tuna comes from the Western and Central Pacific Ocean and fortunately, the WCPFC has some of the strongest monitoring and surveillance tools in the world to ensure fishing happens in accordance with the agreed rules. All boats fishing in the WCPFC Convention Area are required to have a GPS-based vessel monitoring system (VMS) that reports the location of boats directly to the WCPFC Secretariat. Under WCPFC rules, Australia, New Zealand and other WCPFC members can access VMS data for foreign fishing boats that transit their fishing zones or when these boats are on the high seas and within 100 nautical miles of their fishing zones.

AFMA has officers embedded 24/7 in the Australian Maritime Border Operations Centre, a multiagency taskforce that co-ordinates a range of Australian assets to respond to multiple threats to the Australian maritime border. AFMA officers closely monitor WCPFC VMS, analyse data from aerial and surface patrols and other intelligence and organise responses to unauthorised entry into Australian waters. These responses may include the sharing of information with other countries, the seizure of boats and detention and prosecution of crew. This type of work has been extremely effective with no illegal tuna fishing detected within the Australian Fishing Zone in recent years.

Another aspect of the WCPFC rules is that they allow members to board and inspect each others’ fishing boats on the high seas to ensure they are complying with the rules. AFMA has undertaken several of these inspections of foreign fishing boats in recent years. The aim of these inspections is to ensure that operators are accurately reporting their catches correctly in scientific logbooks, deploying bycatch mitigation devices and reporting their location via VMS. Foreign boats fishing for tuna near the Australian fishing zone can expect to be inspected by AFMA and are largely compliant with WCPFC rules.

Australia, New Zealand, France and the United States also cooperate closely by coordinating air and sea assets and personnel to support patrols of the entire Western and Central Pacific Ocean. These patrols ensure that there are very few ‘black’ boats. Black boats are boats that are operating outside agreed rules and not reporting on VMS or reporting their catches – that is, their activities are unknown and catches are unable to be accounted for which impacts on the ability to make effective management decisions. AFMA regularly has officers embarked on Australian, French and United States warships to carry out inspections throughout the Western and Central Pacific Ocean.

AFMA fisheries officers also work closely with our regional neighbours to ensure there are no weak links in the abilities of national administrations to take effective action. In recent years the focus has been on port based monitoring of boats. All boats need access to a port to land their catches or to resupply. Closing remote ports or manning ports is a highly effective way of ensuring foreign fishing boats are meeting WCPFC rules. AFMA has worked alongside our counterparts in Pacific Island countries as well as in south east Asia to enhance our collective abilities to identify and crack down on breaches of fisheries laws.

As tuna and billfish stocks are shared throughout the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, ensuring countries are playing by the same set of rules is crucial to having sustainable fish stocks in Australian waters. AFMA uses a multifaceted strategy that includes broad cooperation across a number of areas, includes cooperation with our northern neighbours and those ‘across the ditch’, and uses a wide range of techniques to ensure compliance with WCPFC rules and a strong future for tuna and billfish stocks.

In addition to the Australian based management, this international work is pivotal to ensuring that the popular game species that we all love either chasing or eating, are here for many years to come.

View the article printed in issue 127 of Bluewater Magazine.