On 1 December 2015, the UK and Australia signed a bilateral agreement on Antarctic cooperation priorities out to 2020. A month later, a similar agreement was signed with New Zealand. Among other issues, such as strengthening cross-continental scientific cooperation, both agreements called for closer cooperation to eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the Southern Ocean.
The importance of tackling IUU fishing in waters off Antarctica should not be underestimated. The recent case of the ‘Bandit 6’ illustrates why. The Bandit 6 consisted of six Spanish-owned trawlers specialised for catching Antarctic and Patagonian Toothfish, a slow-growing relative of cod, often sold as Chilean sea bass in North America. Each ship could catch more than US$1 million worth of toothfish per trip, posing a significant threat to stocks. The ships were returning to East Antarctica (attracting attention from both Australia and the New Zealand) each year, laying illegal nets, selling their catch in Asia and Asia, and then changing their names and identities to avoid detection.
IUU fishing in East Antarctica does not just challenge the sovereign rights of Australia and New Zealand, it also impacts the effectiveness of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which was established in 1982 ‘with the objective of conserving Antarctic marine life…in response to increasing commercial interest’. CCAMLR manages quotas for legal fishing on the basis of sustainability. IUU fishing undermines these quotas because it is impossible to assess the sustainability of fish stocks if part of the catch is unreported. This also has commercial consequences as legal quotas have to be reduced to reflect estimates of IUU activity.
The New Zealand Navy started patrolling the Ross Sea in 2010, the first time the armed forces of any country had gone after illegal fishing vessels in Antarctic waters. However, the Southern Ocean is a vast expanse of water making it incredibly difficult to gather evidence of, and confront, IUU fishing (crews cut their nets to dispose of evidence, which in turn poses an additional long-term threat to marine life). Stopping the Bandit 6 required the combined efforts of national governments, navies, Interpol and the Sea Shepherd Society, an environmental non-governmental organisation which has spent the past two years gathering evidence and harassing the Bandit 6 to disrupt their activities. The last of the Bandit 6 was arrested by the Indonesian government in February.
The bilateral agreements signed between the UK, New Zealand and Australia represent a renewed commitment to combatting IUU fishing. Their signing was timed with visits by the UK Royal Navy’s Ice Patrol Ship, HMS Protector, to Hobart and Christchurch. HMS Protector became the first Royal Navy vessel to visit the East Antarctic and Ross Sea regions for 80 years, as it conducted a five-week patrol for IUU fishing with New Zealand and Australian officers on-board. HMS Protector has since left to finish its circumnavigation of Antarctica, aimed at demonstrating the UK’s pan-Antarctic interests.
Issue to Watch
The signing of the two bilateral agreements and the visit of HMS Protector reinforces the commitment of the UK to tackling IUU fishing in Antarctica, in partnership with other national governments. The agreements also perform a secondary, more geopolitical purpose. They offer a public reminder of the cross-continental interests and historic bonds that exist between the UK, New Zealand and Australia in Antarctica. This suggests increasing cooperation between original claimant states in Antarctica and newly interested actors such as China should not be seen as a threat to these historic bonds.