23 November 2005

Australia: Shark poachers defy machineguns to seek prey

Machineguns and machetes are being used in a growing conflict between Australia and Indonesian pirate boats poaching sharks for the lucrative Chinese market.

Record prices for shark fin soup have lured more and more poor Indonesian fishermen to Australia's tropical northern waters.

They are making audacious forays along the sparsely populated coast because over-fishing has all but wiped out sharks in other parts of south-east Asia. Up to 25,000 tons of shark were poached in 2003, a government report found.

A record 216 illegal fishing boats have been seized this year, double the number caught in 2002. Australian authorities say there may be hundreds more in the area. In addition, 242 boats have been intercepted, had their fishing gear confiscated and were ordered out of Australian waters.

"This is the first time we have reached a double century in a calendar year," Ian Macdonald, the federal fisheries minister, said. In recent weeks the Indonesians have used sharpened bamboo stakes, machetes, knives and pit bull terriers to fend off boarding parties from customs and fisheries patrol vessels. The bigger poaching boats have shocked Australian officials by refusing to stop even when deck-mounted machineguns are fired across their bows.

Last month an Indonesian boat crew fishing illegally off the Northern Territory used burning poles, lead weights and machetes to fight off customs officers. Officers took control after a chase lasting several hours. They found a large quantity of shark fins and 50 shark carcasses in the hold. Australian commercial fishermen, who must observe strict quotas, say the rampant poaching will turn the sea into "a marine desert".

Western Australia's fisheries minister, Jon Ford, has issued a warning that the poachers also pose a threat to aboriginal communities and isolated tourist resorts.

"There are lots of expensive charter boats running around the area with tourists on board," his spokesman said. "It would not take much for a misunderstanding to lead to an unfortunate incident."

The issue will be discussed by ministers from Indonesia, Australia and East Timor at a fisheries summit in Canberra next week.

The demand for shark fins, which can fetch £400 per kilo, is being encouraged by China's burgeoning middle class, which regards shark fin soup as a status symbol. "There is an enormous market," said Jim Fox, of the Australian National University's school of Pacific and Asian studies. "Shark fin soup is an integral part of any middle-class wedding in China."

A government source said: "We suspect that Chinese criminal cartels are behind many of the boats. They are not subsistence operations any more - they have GPS navigation systems."

As well as tougher enforcement, Australia is trying to provide poachers with alternative livelihoods.

On the island of Roti in West Timor, where many of the illegal fishermen come from, about 60 families have been persuaded to switch to drying and selling seaweed for use in products such as toothpaste and plastics. But seaweed will never be as lucrative as shark fin.

Source: www.telegraph.co.uk


Post a Comment

<< Home