SYDNEY • Thirty Vietnamese found fishing illegally in Australian waters were given suspended jail sentences and had their boats destroyed in what the authorities said was a strong deterrent message.
The crew were from two boats caught fishing illegally in a Coral Sea marine reserve off Australia's north coast on June 2, with diving gear and six tonnes of sea cucumber - a delicacy in some Asian cuisines - found on board.
The fishermen all pleaded guilty in a Darwin court to breaking Australian fisheries and environmental laws.
Their penalties, handed down yesterday, included suspended jail sentences ranging from two months for the crew to five and seven months for the masters of the vessels. They were also issued good behaviour bonds ranging from two to three years, with up to A$2,000 (S$2,010) to pay if they are breached.
"Illegal fishing threatens the economic viability and sustainability of Australia's well-managed marine resources," said Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) general manager Peter Venslovas.
"The convictions and destruction of the vessels are a good result and will send a very strong message to all those considering illegally fishing in Australian waters."
The case came on the same day that a Papua New Guinean boat was apprehended for suspected illegal fishing in Australian waters. It was allegedly carrying sea cucumber and two shark's fins.
The two fishing vessels operated by the convicted Vietnamese fishermen were confiscated by AFMA and destroyed in Cairns.
AFMA said the vessels were originally spotted on May 31 by an Australian Border Force surveillance aircraft in the Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve sanctuary zone of Lihou Reef, 600km east of Cairns, in Queensland state.
During initial inspections, officers found enough diving gear to support more than 10 divers in the water at once.
Parks Australia head of marine protected areas Jason Mundy said Lihou Reef has been a sanctuary since 1982.
"It is a pristine reef ecosystem of national significance, a very special place. Illegal activities such as fishing threaten to deny current and future generations the opportunity to experience these natural assets," he said.
According to a United Nations Development Programme report this month, up to 26 million tonnes of fish are caught illegally each year.
Stepped-up surveillance by Australia has seen the amount of illegal fishing fall from a high of 367 boats caught a decade ago to just 17 so far in the 2015-2016 financial year, government data shows.