Australian Marine Parks

Catch of two foreign fishing vessels, Coral Sea, February 2017. Timothy Skewes. 30 March 2017. Parks Australia.


Executive summary

Illegal fishing by foreign fishing vessels (FFV) is a threat to fisheries within Australia’s EEZ, including the reefs of the Coral Sea territories.

Recent activity by Vietnamese based fishing vessels (blue boats) focused on sea cucumber (beche-de-mer) in north east Australia has resulted in several recent apprehensions.

Information on the catch of these FFV is critical for assessing and managing their impacts and for optimising future surveillance, enforcement and mitigation activities.

Two FFV were apprehended near Saumarez Reef in Australia’s Coral Sea territory on 15 February 2017.

The entire catch of one FFV (FFV2) and part of the catch of another (FFV1) was sampled.

The catch was all in gutted, salted form, stored in 200 l plastic barrels. It is likely that the catch was intact (not disposed of at sea by the illegal fishers or authorities).

The catch of FFV2 was from 2 separate fishing episodes, separated by a significant time period. The “older” catch was a mix of Prickly redfish (38%), Redfish (24%), Leopardfish (10%), and Brown sandfish (20%).

It is possible that it was sourced from the Chesterfield Reefs in the New Caledonian EEZ. The “recent” catch was mostly made up of White teatfish (86%), with some Black teatfish (10%) and Prickly redfish (2%).

It is likely that this catch was sourced from reef passes and deeper lagoon habitats of reefs within Australia Coral Sea territory, fished over about a 1 week period.

The total catch estimate for FFV2 was 8.87 tonnes (or 19.75 tonnes of live sea cucumbers). Of this, the “older” catch was 2.67 tonnes (30%) and the “recent” catch was 6.19 tonnes (70%).

The estimated market value of the catch of FFV2 was AUD$250,000, most that return being derived from the higher value species caught in the Australian Coral Sea territory.

The catch of FFV2 alone represents 133% of the White teatfish, and 77% of the Black teafish annual Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for the entire Australian Coral Sea Sea Cucumber Fishery, so it represents a substantial risk to the sustainability of the sea cucumber populations in the Coral Sea territory.

In addition, as much as 75% of the White teatfish, and almost 90% Black teatfish in the catch of FFV2 was smaller than the minimum size limit (MSL) for the Australian Coral Sea and GBR sea cucumber fisheries.

Fishing effort is likely to be highly concentrated, and local populations at least significantly depleted, resulting in significant ecological risk given the important role that sea cucumbers play in the ecology of coral reefs.

Sea cucumber fisheries globally have been largely overexploited.

They are easy to deplete and can be slow to recover, highlighting the need for careful and responsive management.

Australian fisheries are among the few tropical shallow water sea cucumber fisheries globally to have continued viability.

Given the restricted and conservative nature of management of the Australian Coral Sea (and GBR) fishery, the size of the illegal catch (especially if extrapolated to a possible several dozen FFV per year) presents a grave risk to sea cucumber populations in the Coral Sea territory, and the ecology of the reefs which they inhabit.