The Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) has seized four illegal boats carrying hundreds of illegally-harvested giant clams and sea cucumbers (trepang) in Northern Australia following a coordinated operation by Border Protection Command (BPC), including the Royal Australian Navy, the Department of the Environment and AFMA. The seized vessels have been destroyed.
Selling for as much as AUD 5000 (USD 4,700) each, giant clams have been driven to extinction in numerous parts of the region, and are listed as vulnerable under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The clams were harvested for their meat and valuable metre-long shells. Trade in giant clams is regulated globally and it is illegal to harvest the species in Australia without a permit.
Clam expert and PhD Candidate Shane Penny from Charles Darwin University advises that clams over 100 centimeters may be 80 to 100 years old.
Three of the vessels had also been found harvesting sea cucumbers (trepang), overfished in most parts of the world. Although the sea cucumber has a lower public profile than the iconic clams they are still valuable. It is estimated that the seized sea cucumbers alone would have been worth around AUD 55,000 (USD 51,700).
AFMA’s General Manager of Operations, Peter Venslovas, said that “Monitoring Australia’s northern waters and seabed is a vital role that helps protect Australia’s fish resources and marine ecosystems from the threat of illegal foreign fishing vessels operating north of Australia.”
He highlighted that these apprehensions demonstrated just how challenging protecting Australia’s marine resources is but also how well BPC, Navy, the Department of the Environment and AFMA were able to work together to execute a successful operation to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. “These apprehensions send a strong message to other potential offenders that you will be caught if you fish illegally for Australian resources and you will be prosecuted and have your fishing vessel confiscated.”
AFMA will donate the seized clam shells to the Museum of the Northern Territory and it is expected they will eventually make their way to a range of scientific institutions. Although it is tragic that the clams were taken the shells and tissue samples create a unique opportunity to study the genetics and demography of the population, which will help inform future conservation efforts as well as assess the consequences of this harvest.
The masters from the clam boats were prosecuted and convicted in court.
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