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Reef shark movements at Ningaloo Reef

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07 April 2009

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which is devastating delicate ecosystems and fish breeding grounds in waters to Australia's north, can no longer be managed effectively by individual nations and now requires an urgent regional solution if food security into the future is to be maintained, according to a new scientific report.

AIMS fish ecologist Dr Mark Meekan, with Charles Darwin University ecologist Dr Iain Field, Dr Corey Bradshaw from the University of Adelaide and the South Australian Research ‘ Development Institute, and Northern Territory fisheries scientist, Dr Rik Buckworth, have published a paper in the journal Fish and Fisheries * that advocates a multi-lateral response to a problem that has grown out of control in recent decades. Worldwide the value of IUU fishing is estimated between $US9 and $US23 billion each year.

The paper is the first big-picture account of the problem from Australia's perspective. Although there had been a decline in IUU fishing in Australian waters over the past two years, possibly linked to large Australian government expenditure on enforcement and rising fuel prices, the forces driving illegal fishing have not gone away and are likely to resurface in our waters.

Dr Meekan expects that the small-scale illegal fishers will be back to prey on other species such as snapper, trochus and trepang as soon as it is economically viable for them to do so. To date, these IUU fishers have focused mostly on high-value sharks mainly for the fin trade, to the extent that the abundance of some shark species has dropped precipitously.

He said that IUU fishing, which has devastated fish resources and their associated ecosystems throughout Southeast Asian waters, was driven by deep economic and societal forces. For example, the Asian economic crisis in the late 1990s drove a large number of people out of cities and into illegal fishing.

It was not enough to maintain just a national response as the problem crossed national maritime zones, he said, and posed one of the biggest threats known to marine ecosystems throughout the region.

"These IUU fishers are mining protein," Dr Meekan said. "There is no regard to sustainability or factoring in fish breeding or ecosystem protection."

"Illegal fishing in Australian waters started increasing steeply about 10 years ago, largely because of over-exploitation of waters further north, peaking in 2005-06 then falling away just as steeply," Dr Bradshaw said.

Dr Field said there were three factors behind the recent downturn: Australian government enforcement measures estimated to have cost at least $240 million since 2006; the high price of fuel for the fishing boats; and, most importantly, the fact that the high-value species may have been fished out.

The $240 million has funded surveillance, apprehension, transportation, processing and accommodation of the several thousand illegal foreign fishermen detained each year since 2006. "These activities have been successful, but we doubt that they can hold back the IUU tide indefinitely, since the benefits to the illegal fishers of their activities far outweigh the penalties if caught," Dr Field said.

"With increasing human populations in the region, the pressure to fish illegally is likely to increase," according to the authors of the paper.

"Regional responses are required to deter and monitor the illegal over-exploitation of fisheries resources, which is critical to secure ecosystem stability as climate change and other destructive human activities threaten food security."

*The Fish and Fisheries paper, written by Iain Field, Mark Meekan, Rik Buckworth and Corey Bradshaw, is titled "Protein mining the world's oceans: Australasia as an example of illegal expansion-and-displacement fishing". Go to

For further information, please contact:

Dr Mark Meekan, AIMS

Phone: 0429 101 812

Dr Iain Field, Charles Darwin University

Phone: 0427 355 879

Associate Professor Corey Bradshaw, University of Adelaide

Phone: 0400 697 665

Dr Rik Buckworth

Phone: 08-8999 2135

Ms Wendy Ellery , AIMS Media Liaison

Phone: 4753 4409; 0418 729 265

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