Blue boats are reef robbers – the new maritime threat for the Asia Pacific?

Illegal fishing on a large scale by Vietnamese wooden boats

A flotilla of Vietnamese fishing boats with crews working in harsh conditions "loot" the Pacific coral reefs. What are they looking for: Seafood. Poaching is increasingly becoming a problem.

Dr. Andrew Song of the ARC Center for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University has now highlighted the problem of the Vietnamese "Blue Boat" fleet: small, often blue-painted fishing vessels that travel thousands of miles for their illegal fishing in Pacific waters. Dr. Song explains that the reasons are both economic and geopolitical, as increased Chinese presence / interference has displaced Vietnamese fishermen from their traditional fishing grounds in the South China Sea.

"The boats are between 10-15 meters long and can accommodate up to 17. The crews are said to have no employment contract and no insurance and are often exposed to accidents or incidents, travelling more than 7,000 km around the Pacific and staying up to three months at sea," said Dr. Song.

Illegal fishing targets primarily high-quality species of sea cucumber and giant clams found on many coral reefs. Dr. Song estimates the cost of each boat at around 15,000-35,000 AU$, while processed tropical sea cucumbers in Hong Kong and China can be sold at 150-300 AU$ per kilogram. He explains that there is a suspicion that the blue boats on the open sea meet large "mother ships" to dump their catch and raise supplies.

"Collecting sea cucumbers in foreign waters is apparently easier and less dangerous as sea cucumbers are still found in six to seven meters deep water whereas in the waters off Vietnam, people have to dive 60 to 80 meters to find sea cucumbers." said Dr. Song. "Poaching is threatening the livelihoods of coastal communities and is a major source of national export revenue in the Pacific." Sea cucumber fishing is considered the second most valuable export fishery for the Pacific island states," he adds.

The Pacific Island States are limited in their ability to provide resources for patrolling such a vast area, and the relatively small wooden boats are hard to find, even with the help of radar.

"In Australian waters, the number of arrested foreign vessels fishing illegally has risen from six in 2014 to 20 in 2016, with most coming from Vietnam and Indonesia." said Song.

According to Dr. Song, Poachers should be seen as a new kind of security threat that compromises the food security of Pacific island nations and their economies. Dr. Song calls for networked activities by the countries concerned to take action against the "Blue Boats".