New treaties needed to tackle illegal sea trade: Australian police

SYDNEY - New regional agreements are needed to tackle criminal gangs using the world's oceans for illegal fishing and smuggling, a top Australian maritime officer said, calling the lucrative trade an "imminent threat" to global security.

International syndicates were plying the high seas, illegally fishing for rare species, smuggling drugs, weapons and even body parts with few constraints, according to New South Wales Marine Police Inspector Joe McNulty.

But officers can do little to stop them under current international law, he told a seminar in Sydney late Thursday, calling for Canberra to sign new bilateral and regional deals to allow vessels suspected of illegal activities to be boarded.

"The international law model of maritime policing in the high seas has not kept pace with the transnational sophistication of organised crime," he told the seminar, dubbing such criminal gangs "The Untouchables".

"This remains a constant and imminent threat to the wellbeing and security of the global community," added McNulty, who is regional controller of the NSW Police's marine fleet.

Under current international law, a country's officials can only board a foreign ship if they get permission from the nation where the vessel is registered.

Such ships often fly a "flag of convenience" in which vessels are registered in a country to avoid legal regulations and where authorities have limited resources to pursue possible lawbreakers.

While regional agreements would be a way of tackling illegal activities, sensitivities about sovereignty in Asia could hamper make any negotiations, Don Rothwell, a law of the sea expert at the Australian National University, told AFP.

'Life is very cheap'

McNulty's call for new international treaties came as Indonesia and Thailand agreed Thursday to set up a joint taskforce on illegal fishing.

Thai firms have been linked to shadowy fishing operations in Indonesia, a rich hunting ground that sees Jakarta lose an estimated US$20 billion annually.

The crew on board such vessels are frequently extremely poor and working in difficult conditions, McNulty said, likening their situation to "modern-day slavery".

"Life is very cheap and if someone is injured, they usually go over the side because they're a burden to the operation." Sea Shepherd Australia, an environmental activist group pursuing vessels suspected of illegally fishing in the Southern Ocean, welcomed McNulty's comments and said countries needed to do more.

"We've got a history here of inaction by governments and any way where... we can see these criminals brought to justice we would support," Sea Shepherd Australia spokesman Adam Burling told AFP.

"Sea Shepherd has had to go out on its own and take on these poachers, and it's shown with the small resources that we have that we've been able to be very effective." Sea Shepherd ships Bob Barker and Sam Simon spent three months chasing Nigerian-flagged vessel Thunder earlier this year before rescuing its crew after the ship sank in early April.

Thunder is on a list of ships deemed to have engaged in illegal, unreported, or unregulated fishing activities by multi-national body the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.