Trawling will be banned from a significant area of the Hauraki Gulf. Photo: Legasea

A commercial trawling vessel that has been in continuous use since being seized by the Crown almost three years ago highlights a lack of any real fisheries penalties, environmentalists say.

Westfleet trawler the Tasman Viking, which operates out of Greymouth, was convicted for breaching a condition of a high seas permit and reporting shortcomings in June for an incident that took place between October and November of 2020.

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The incident, in which it trawled up bamboo coral and disposed of it by redeploying the net before it could be weighed by onboard observers, copped Westfleet a $56,250 fine and forfeiture of its vessel.

The Tasman Viking’s former skipper and first mate were separately convicted and fined $7500 and $6000 respectively.

The Greymouth Star reports the Tasman Viking is out fishing the entire time, despite the late 2020 seizure of the ship and subsequent court order of forfeiture to the Ministry for Primary Industries.

It hasn’t yet had to pay a redemption fee to get its vessel returned and has been operating it under a user agreement.

The ministry says an application for relief from forfeiture has been filed for the Tasman Viking but the redemption fee matter has not yet been determined by the court.

Once it has been, and the redemption fee has been paid, the vessel will return to the ownership of Westfleet Fishing, which is half-owned by Sealord.

Westfleet and its chief executive Craig Boote declined to comment. The Tasman Viking still being in use by Westfleet is far from an isolated incident and is commonplace in nearly all seizures and forfeitures initiated by the ministry.

Westfleet boss Craig Boote has got the forfeit Tasman Viking back, even though the company hasn’t paid any redemption fee. Photo: Supplied

Other examples of this in recent years include the Amaltal Mariner (though the conviction was later overturned), Amaltal Apollo, Ocean Dawn and the San Waitaki.

Steve Ham, the ministry’s director of fisheries compliance at Fisheries NZ, says an application for relief from forfeiture has been filed for the Tasman Viking but the redemption fee matter has not yet been determined by the court.

Ham says the reasons for returning the vessels to the offending companies almost instantly include preventing taxpayers from having to pay for maintenance of the vessel over extended periods while the court considers applications for relief from forfeiture, as well as not creating a potentially unjust situation.

In the Tasman Viking’s case it is restricted to trawling within New Zealand’s exclusive economic zone, rather than being able to fish the ‘high seas’ where the incident happened on Lord Howe rise between New Zealand and Australia.

Ham says this is all standard procedure, and while some new rules for offences and penalties were introduced in the Fisheries Amendment Act last year, forfeiture rules remained the same.

Greenpeace Aotearoa campaigner Jessica Desmond says the penalty for failing to properly identify, assess and report destroyed coral should act as a meaningful deterrent to stop repeat offending.

“If you saw the headlines earlier this year when the judge ordered the forfeiture of the Tasman Viking to the Crown, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the trawler was out of action but in reality it was able to keep fishing,” she says.

“It’s hard to see this as anything other than misrepresentation.

“Transparent and accurate reporting of coral bycatch is the bare minimum and companies should be held accountable for breaches but the real answer to preventing the destruction of ancient and slow-growing coral destruction is to ban bottom trawling.”

Coral provides an important habitat for species and grows on hard surfaces such as the nutrient-rich seamounts targeted by trawlers.

Deep Sea Coalition campaigner Karli Thomas says there is both a misrepresentation and public misunderstanding when it comes to vessel confiscations.

“I feel like I say this all the time … all four fishing companies that have been issued high seas trawl permits in the last few years have recent convictions for illegal fishing.

“It came as a shock to us when we realised these vessels are basically still out fishing the entire time they’re under prosecution or even once they’ve been prosecuted, and we know that they’ve been engaged in illegal fishing but there’s basically no break in their operations.”

Thomas says the main disruption is not allowing the vessels to leave New Zealand waters, but this could still happen with written approval from Fisheries.

“It’s a bit absurd, really,” Thomas says. 

“Amaltal Mariner, for instance, fished illegally in the marine reserve off Kaikoura and it continued to get high seas permits to fish in the South Pacific.

“There’s a quite a blinkered view in the way it’s portrayed as if it’s a meaningful penalty when in actual fact, they just fish somewhere different.”

Gulf protections

The criticisms of the ministry’s ability to meaningfully punish breaches of the law comes as the Government prepares to roll out a ban on bottom trawling in the Hauraki Gulf.

Minister for Oceans Rachel Brooking laid out four options for the future of the fishery yesterday.

The options would see Danish seine fishing (a method of boat seining with a large net, but landing the catch on the vessel) banned from between 74.1 percent or 87.3 percent of the gulf shallower than 200m, as well as banning bottom trawling from between 77.1 percent or 89.1 percent of the park, depending on the option chosen.

The 3.4 percent of the park that is deeper than 200m will be assessed in a separate process.

Submissions are open from next week.

Andrew Bevin is an Auckland-based business reporter who covers major industries, markets, regulation, aged care and fisheries.

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