Surface Forces: December 21, 2003


Australia is leasing and arming a vessel to patrol the remote Heard Island fisheries near the Antarctic. The vessel, with an ice-strengthened hull and a deck-mounted .50-caliber machine gun, will be there to prevent poaching of the depleted stocks of fish. The vessel will have armed customs officers, Australian fisheries officials, and crewmen who can take any seized vessel to the nearest Australian port. Exact details about this vessel have not been finalized, but the Australian government has already set aside $37 million a year for operating costs. This ship will join eight Bay-class Australian Customs vessels (ACVs) in the National Maritime Unit of the Customs Service. The Bay-class vessels are 124 feet long and have eight Customs officers on board. They carry two 21-foot long boats, each of which can hold two crew and four passengers. The lead ship, Roebuck Bay, was delivered in 1998, with the other seven following in 1999 and 2000. They replaced older 65-foot long customs vessels (at least one of which has been transferred to Fiji). The Bay-class vessels are sometimes supplemented by either Royal Australian Navy Fremantle-class patrol boats, which are 134 feet, six inches in length, displace 200 tons and are armed with a forty-millimeter cannon and three .50-caliber machine guns, or chartered vessels such as icebreakers. Often they are vectored in by contractor-operated aircraft (usually de Havilland Canada Dash 8s or Pilatus Britten-Norman BN2B Maritime Defenders) or Royal Australian Air Force P-3s.

This decision to augment the Bay-class vessels with a full-time armed fisheries patrol vessel comes after numerous poaching incidents involving foreign-flagged vessels that have breached Australias Exclusive Economic Zone, which have not only damaged the fish population, but have also cost the Australian government millions of dollars in licensing fees. One notable incident in August involved a 21-day, 7,200-kilometer chase of a Urugrayan-flagged boat, the Viarsa 1, that had illegally taken a load of Patagonian toothfish from Australian waters in the sub-Antarctic. The Australian vessel chasing it, the Southern Supporter, was not armed, and thus was unable to stop and board the Viarsa. The chase was eventually ended with the help of South African enforcement officials and the Viarsa was escorted back to Australia.

Poaching and illegal wildlife transactions are big business, second only to drug smuggling. The penalties are much lower, though, and thus, wildlife smuggling can be a good business for those who do not have the stomach for the risks involved with the drug trade. A conviction on drug charges can net the death penalty in some nations, the penalties for a conviction involving poaching or wildlife smuggling merit little more than a slap on the wrist. Australia is toughening the penalties in an effort to dissuade the poachers, who are suspected of being involved in an organized-crime syndicate. Harold C. Hutchison


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