Toothfish Pirates Wear Russian Flag at International Court

Press release - 12 December, 2002

A Russian-flagged pirate fishing vessel caught fishing illegally for the threatened Patagonian toothfish by the Australian Navy in the Southern Ocean, is attempting to convince an international tribunal to lower bonds set for its release from Australian custody.

The vessel Volga was one of two Russian-flagged pirate fishers arrested on 7 February 2002 by an Australian frigate for fishing illegally within Australian waters surrounding Heard Island. The Volga had 127 tonnes of toothfish (also know as Chilean sea bass) onboard when arrested and was escorted back to Western Australia. This week, the Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) will hear an application by Russia to lower the bond set down for the vessel's release by the Australian court from 2,332,000 Euros to 279,114 Euros. This is the fourth toothfish pirate to ask the Tribunal to lower bonds.

"High fines and bonds are the only effective deterrent to pirate fishers in the ocean around Antarctica where the environmental stakes are very high," said Desley Mather of Greenpeace. "Russia is not only supporting pirate toothfish poachers by giving them their flag, they are now attempting to remove the only financial obstacle to their continued plundering of the Antarctic marine environment." (1)

Russia is a member country of the UN body responsible for protecting the Antarctic marine environment -- the 24-member Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) (2). Fishing vessels like the Volga, which are flagged to three CCAMLR members, are lying about where they catch toothfish.

"The likelihood that the Volga will return to the fishing grounds to poach more toothfish is very high if the bond for its release is lowered," said Mather. "Greenpeace has seen toothfish pirates return to the fishing grounds as soon as they are released from detention, including one vessel which was successful in convincing the Tribunal to lower a French Court's bond in 2000. That vessel was subsequently caught again in the fishing grounds at least three times after it was released."

Pirate fishers are now moving from flags of convenience countries to CCAMLR countries such as Russia and Uruguay which apparently turn a blind eye to their poaching operations (3). In doing so, they allow their country's flag to be used by vessels to ignore the rules set down to protect the Antarctic marine environment. "Other CCAMLR countries responsible for the conservation of toothfish should be outraged and demand that Russia conduct itself as a responsible Antarctic Treaty State," Mather said.

Greenpeace believes that the Tribunal must take into consideration the serious environmental consequences (3) and the blatant disregard of pirates for fisheries regulations when assessing whether the bond set by France was "reasonable". (4)

The Tribunal is due to hand down its decision within 14 days following the hearing.

Notes: (1) CCAMLR member countries are: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, European Community, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Namibia, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Russian Federation, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine, United Kingdom, USA and Uruguay. 2) Up to 93,000 Southern Ocean seabirds-including endangered species of albatross-have been caught and drowned as bycatch by pirate fishers in just the past year. Many seabird species are declining at rates so high that extinction is entirely possible. 3) At its annual meeting in October, CCAMLR scientists estimated that toothfish fisheries will collapse by 2010-2012 if pirate poaching continues at its current rate. Many of the Indian Ocean sector fisheries most heavily targetted by pirate fishers, like Australia's Heard Island and France's Kerguelen Island toothfisheries, are in desperate straits. 4) Pirate fishing companies now convince these CCAMLR countries to register their vessels in an attempt to legitimise their operations. These vessels usually do not have a CCAMLR licence to fish and claim to catch their toothfish outside the CCAMLR Area. They then launder the fish through CCAMLR's Catch Documentation Scheme with the backing of these rogue states. The Volga is only one of the vessels flagged to CCAMLR Members Russia and Uruguay that have been caught fishing inside the CCAMLR Area in the past year. One of the Uruguay-flagged vessels was the Arvisa (ex Camouco) which was successful in its bid to gain a lower bond after a similar ITLOS hearing in 2000.In the past two and a half years vessels from Russia, Uruguay and Korea have stolen just under 14,000 tonnes (about 150,721,722 Euro) of toothfish from waters managed by CCAMLR, in addition to their legal catches.