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NZ Fishing Vessel Confiscated for Failure to Report 20 Kilos of Coral

Westfleet
Courtesy Westfleet

Published Jun 13, 2023 11:25 PM by The Maritime Executive

A court in New Zealand has ordered the forfeiture of a commercial fishing vessel over the crew's failure to report bycatch of about 20 kilos of coral.

In October 2020, the trawler Tasman Viking was operating near Lord Howe Rise, off the coast of eastern Australia. On one cast of her trawl net, the net came back with an unknown quantity of bamboo coral caught in the mesh. Under the rules of the Convention on the Conservation and Management of High Seas Fisheries Resources in the South Pacific, bottom trawlers have to report all taking of vulnerable corals and sponges. There is a take limit of 15 kilos, and if it is reached, the vessel must halt bottom fishing in the area. This mechanism is designed to protect bamboo coral, a deep-sea species that is particularly vulnerable to trawl damage. 

However, the crew of the Tasman Viking did not report the haul of coral, even though fisheries observers were on board and watching. Instead, they shot the nets again, pulling most of the coral back over the side and destroying the evidence. The observers weighed about 2.8 kilos worth of material that remained behind and took photos of the operation. 

New Zealand's Ministry for Primary Industries pursued an enforcement suit against the operator, Westfleet, for failing to report the bycatch. An expert witness for the ministry estimated that the net had brought up about 20 kilos of coral, exceeding the take limit; Westfleet's lawyer argued that the amount was far lower. Ultimately, presiding magistrate Judge David Ruth ruled that the quantity did not have bearing on the offense, which hinged on reporting. 

On Monday, Westfleet Fishing pleaded guilty to a breach of its permit requirements and failure to report the take of coral. Describing the firm's compliance culture as "cavalier," Judge Ruth sentenced the company to NZ$74,000 in fines (including penalties levied on crewmembers) and the forfeiture of the vessel, which is worth millions. While this may sound like a stiff penalty, New Zealand law allows the owner to appeal to the court to have the forfeiture changed to a fine, potentially a lower amount than the total value of the ship. 

"All commercial fishers are required to hold a permit to fish the SPRFMO fishing area, and reporting organisms from the sea floor such as coral and sponges caught is an important requirement. The rules are agreed by the countries of the South Pacific and are there for a reason – to protect the ocean environment and prevent fishing from causing damage to vulnerable marine ecosystems on the seafloor," said Fisheries New Zealand Regional Manager of Fisheries Compliance, Howard Reid.

In a statement to local media, Westfleet said that the failure to report was unintentional, and it is strengthening crew training to prevent any recurrence.