Wednesday, July 9, 2008

New Zealand Sinks Teeth into Sub Antarctic Toothfish Pirates

The High Court in New Zealand has rejected attempts by a Namibian fishing company to gag the New Zealand government. The court ruled that the Government acted within domestic and international law in inspecting Namibian-based Omunkete Fishing (Pty) Limited’s Paloma V fishing vessel when it sought to unload nearly 100 tonnes of Patagonian toothfish in Auckland in May 2008.

As soon as the High Court released its decision, the government filed its report with the Commission of the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). The report details evidence obtained in the search of illegal fishing and collaboration with other known pirate vessels in sub Antarctic waters. New Zealand also recommended that the Paloma V be blacklisted from entry to the ports of the 34 CCAMLR signatory countries.

The Patagonian toothfish is known as the "white gold" of the Southern Ocean, commanding high prices in the luxury end of the seafood market. It is sold under the trade name “Chilean sea bass” in the United States and is a top-end sashimi item in Japan. The illegal catch is estimated to be up to five times the legal catch.

The toothfish is highly vulnerable to overfishing because its stock is not very resilient. While it lives up to 50 years, it takes 6-9 years to become sexually mature. Combined with relatively low fecundity, the minimum population doubling time is as long as 4.5 to 14 years.

It seems a corporate shell game (excuse the pun) is at work in the illegal fishing of toothfish. In documents submitted to the High Court, NZ Fisheries alleged the computer evidence from the Paloma V showed that Omunkete is controlled by a Spanish company, Vidal Armadores, and a Uruguayan company, Mabenal SA. Omunkete appears to be a vehicle for re-flagging the Paloma V from Uruguay to Namibia in order to obtain a licence to fish in CCAMLR fisheries. Indeed, a CCAMLR licence was issued.

NZ Fisheries further alleged that Mabenal SA has had continuous ownership of the vessel since it was built in 2004. Moreover, Vidal Armadores and Mabenal SA have strong links to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU) in the southern ocean. Documents found onboard the Paloma V show these two companies have interests in the operation of at least 5 fishing vessels currently entered on CCAMLR’s IUU list of vessels. Inspection of the Paloma V’s computer records showed that it had contact with known illegal vessels engaged in pirating toothfish stocks and had engaged in resupplying them at sea. Thus, it appears the Paloma V is operating as part of a larger fleet of vessels flying different flags engaged in IUU fishing activities. It is a small step to conclude that corporate interests are seeking to circumvent international treaties by re-flagging to countries like Namibia where monitoring and enforcement capabilities are weak.

This evidence undermines Omunkete Fishing's James van Zyl’s claims in Namibia that the whole affair was related "to the vessel's history" when it was an Uruguay-flagged vessel. "The allegations have nothing to do with the vessel now. They are all historical. We definitely have not been involved in any illegal fishing practices." (The Namibian, July 9, 2008).

Van Zyl suggested that blacklisting of the Paloma V would make Omunkete’s operations uneconomic. He said it takes about 25 days to get to the Antarctic Ocean, with the vessel using approximately 5 000 litres of fuel a day. "There will be no point if we travel all the way there, and not be able to offload at the nearest port, but would have to come all the way back - another 25 days at 5 000 litres fuel of per day. We'll go bankrupt," Van Zyl said.

The Paloma V left New Zealand in late May and docked in Walvis Bay, Namibia on July 3, where it offloaded the 100 tonnes of frozen toothfish for export to the United States.


The High Court decision may be found at (enter Omunkete as the search term)

NZ Ministry of Justice – judicial decisions online

Press release, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters, July 8, 2008

“Namibian trawler netted in Pacific for illegal fishing,” The Namibian, July 9, 2008.

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