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New Zealand convicts company of illegal trawling in high seas restricted area

A New Zealand deep sea trawler.

A New Zealand deep sea trawler does a fast turn after hauling its catch from international waters in the Tasman Sea in 2004. Image © Greenpeace / Roger Grace.

  • In late August, a court in Aotearoa New Zealand convicted a subsidiary of one of the country’s major seafood companies of illegal trawling in a closed area in the Tasman Sea between New Zealand and Australia.
  • The judge fined the company NZ$59,000 (about $33,000) and the skipper NZ$12,000 (about $7,000), and seized the vessel.
  • It’s the fourth case in the past five years where courts convicted New Zealand-flagged vessels of illegal trawling.
  • The recent conviction comes amid an ongoing debate about trawling in New Zealand, with campaigners calling for a ban on bottom trawling on submarine mountains, and the industry disputing their arguments and resisting aspects of the proposed change.

Over the past two decades, fewer vessels have trawled the South Pacific’s high seas. Companies from only one country have kept at it, an island nation with a green reputation: Aotearoa New Zealand.

Most of the trawling is legal, for now, but in late August, a New Zealand court convicted a subsidiary of Talley’s Group Ltd., one of the country’s major seafood companies, of illegal trawling in a closed area in the Tasman Sea between New Zealand and Australia. The judge fined the company NZ$59,000 (about $33,000) and the skipper NZ$12,000 (about $7,000), and seized the vessel. The case took four years to reach this conclusion: the illegal trawling took place over a 10-day period in 2018.

The verdict, which the company did not appeal, follows a series of other recent convictions of New Zealand trawling companies but differs in that it took place on the high seas, or international waters, rather than inside the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). It comes amid a campaign by environmental NGOs to restrict trawling and protect the region’s most ecologically important marine areas.

“The industry is definitely feeling the heat,” Duncan Currie, a New Zealand-based legal adviser to both the High Seas Alliance and the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), two umbrella groups of international environmental NGOs, told Mongabay. In this case, Talley’s tried to avoid liability by blaming the individual skipper, but the court “didn’t buy it,” he said.

Still, Currie and other environmental advocates weren’t fully satisfied. “It’s good that the company was convicted, but the degree of accountability is not enough,” he said, explaining that the vessel forfeiture was only “on paper” and the fines weren’t high enough to create a strong deterrent to illegal trawling.

The conviction comes amid an ongoing debate about trawling in New Zealand, with campaigners calling for a ban on bottom trawling on submarine mountains, and the industry disputing their arguments and resisting aspects of the proposed change.

An orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus), a species that can live 200 years and is commonly fished by New Zealand trawlers. Image by NOAA Photo Library via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

A series of violations

At least four New Zealand-flagged vessels have engaged in illegal trawling in the past five years, two of them owned by Amaltal Fishing Co. Ltd, a Talley’s subsidiary.

In the recently concluded high seas case, the Amaltal Apollo was caught midwater trawling in a closed portion of the North Lord Howe Rise Fisheries Management Area, not far outside the Australian EEZ. The vessel trawled the closed area 14 times over 10 days, catching 22 metric tons of fish, mostly alfonsino (Beryx decadactylus), which sold for NZ$127,000 (about $74,000). (The proceeds went to the government due to the violation.)

The trawling also brought up 18 to 20 kilograms (roughly 40 pounds) of coral, an encounter report says. The presiding judge noted that the skipper, despite having decades of experience, had never worked on the high seas, and was not properly briefed by Amaltal before the voyage, a local newspaper reported.

The case involved midwater trawling, in which the primary catch target is in the water column, not on the seabed. However, sometimes midwater trawling gear does hit the seabed, according to New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), which monitors industrial fishing electronically and brings cases to the courts. That might account for the coral in the Amaltal Apollo’s nets.

The other recent convictions in New Zealand have been for bottom trawling, which involves dragging slightly smaller nets, weighted down with heavy gear, along the seabed. Bottom trawling has a number of negative ecological impacts.

“Trawling destroys the natural seafloor habitat by essentially rototilling the seabed,” according to the U.S. Geological Survey, a government agency, which published research on the practice in 2016. “All of the bottom-dwelling plants and animals are affected, if not outright destroyed by tearing up root systems and animal burrows.” Trawling also emits carbon dioxide from the seabed, leading to acidification, according to a 2021 article in the journal Nature.

Gorgonian coral brought up by a New Zealand bottom trawler.
Gorgonian coral brought up by a New Zealand bottom trawler in 2003. Image © Greenpeace / Malcolm Pullman.

The Amaltal Mariner, another Talley’s vessel, bottom trawled illegally in the Hikurangi Marine Reserve, a protected area off the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island, for one day in March 2019. Its main catch was 56 kg (123 lbs) of orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus).

Last year, the Amaltal Mariner case went to trial. First, a New Zealand district court convicted Amaltal and the skipper, fining the company NZ$27,600 (about $16,000) and the skipper NZ$15,525 (about $9,000), with the judge noting that the reserve had not been marked on the vessel’s electronic mapping devices (though it did appear on a paper chart). While the skipper’s conviction for illegal bottom trawling stood, Amaltal won an appeal in a high court on a technicality so it was not held liable.

Talley’s, Amaltal’s owner, has since introduced “geofencing” technology that allows the company “to clearly see boundaries introduced into [the company’s] chart plotters,” Tony Hazlett, Talley’s CEO, told Mongabay in an emailed statement. The company also made this point before the judges in both court cases.

Aside from Talley’s, two other major New Zealand seafood companies have been convicted of illegal trawling in recent years.

Last year, a court convicted Sanford Limited of multiple cases of illegal bottom trawling. One of its vessels, the San Waitaki, had trawled the Puysegur Benthic Protected Area (BPA) west of Stewart Island in October 2017 and October 2018. In total, the San Waitaki illegally caught more than 25 metric tons of orange roughy and other fish. The court fined Sanford NZ$36,000 (about $21,000).

Meanwhile, a court convicted Sealord Group Limited of conducting five illegal bottom trawls in October 2018. One of its vessels, Ocean Dawn, trawled in a BPA in Mid-Chatham Rise off the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. The court fined Sealord NZ$24,000 (about $14,000), the skipper NZ$7,500 (about $4,400), and the first mate NZ$5,000 (about $2,900).

The Tokatu vessel.
The Tokatu, owned by Sealord, is a trawler that targets orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus), hoki (Macruronus novaezelandiae), and other marine species. At nearly 82 meters (about 270 feet) long, it’s among the largest industrial vessels in New Zealand. Image by Alistair Paterson via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Details of another recent case involving possible illegal trawling and destruction of ancient corals and sponges, apparently in international waters of the Tasman Sea, have not yet been released publicly.

Campaigners say the recent convictions of Talley’s, Sanford and Sealord — New Zealand’s three main trawling companies — should cause government officials to rethink their approach to fisheries.

“All of the companies we’re permitting to trawl have shonky track records,” Karli Thomas, the DSCC’s New Zealand coordinator, told Mongabay.

Following convictions, the vessels in question, which can be worth tens of millions of dollars, are officially forfeited to the government. However, judges normally return seized vessels to the companies for a relatively small redemption fee. For example, in the Sealord case, the company paid about NZ$70,000 (about $40,500) to redeem its NZ$20 million ($11.6 million) vessel, according to a local news report.

A seafood product from Sealord.
A seafood product from Sealord, one of the fishing companies with a recent illegal trawl conviction. Hoki is a deep-sea white fish found in New Zealand’s waters. Image by kiliweb via Open Food Facts (CC BY-SA 3.0).

A campaign for change

Bottom trawling has received a lot of attention in environmental circles around the world in recent years, and New Zealand is no exception.

The DSCC’s New Zealand chapter has pushed the government to move beyond occasional prosecutions and enact systematic reforms. DSCC campaigners, backed by tens of thousands of signatures, have called for a ban on trawling on all seamounts, mountains that rise out of the seafloor, and on related features such as knolls and hills. These tend to be areas where corals and sponges grow in abundance, supporting complex webs of marine life, the campaigners say. Fish such as orange roughy, which can live more than 200 years but have been a target of New Zealand’s trawlers since the 1980s, often spawn there. Some of the deep-sea corals around New Zealand are hundreds or even thousands of years old.

“Not all of the ocean is created equal,” Ellie Hooper, an oceans campaigner at Greenpeace Aotearoa, one of the main NGOs under the DSCC umbrella, told Mongabay. “We want seamounts and related features to be prioritized.”

In July, Greenpeace activists stopped a Talley’s trawler from leaving port in Nelson, on the northern tip of the South Island, for more than 10 hours. Last year, members of the group painted “STOP” on the side of a Talley’s trawler and projected the words “bottom trawling” next to it.

There are about 2,000 seamounts and related features in New Zealand’s EEZ, about 200 of which have been trawled in the last 10 years, a new report from the country’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research reveals. Industry actors favor a narrow definition of seamount that includes only mountains that rise 1,000 meters (about 3,300 feet) above the seafloor, while campaigners favor a broader definition that either includes those above 100 m (330 ft) or the inclusion of the “related features.” The new report states that the 1,000-meter cutoff, while standard, is “arbitrary,” and that the 100-meter cutoff is now used in “many biological and geological studies.”

Greenpeace activists blocking a Talley’s trawling vessel.
In July, two Greenpeace activists blocked a Talley’s trawling vessel, disrupting its departure from port in Nelson, New Zealand. Image © Jason Blair/Greenpeace.

Most trawling in the South Pacific high seas — including the case of the Amaltal Apollo, which happened near the lower slope of a feature in North Lord Howe Rise — takes place around seamounts and related features, the campaigners say. They have therefore called for New Zealand to stop licensing bottom trawlers to work the high seas.

The scale of South Pacific high seas trawling is relatively small. Since 2008, only a few New Zealand bottom trawlers have worked there: annual numbers fluctuate between one and seven. The New Zealand government has continued to grant more high seas permits than that, but some companies based there have opted not to use them. (One or two Australian trawlers — the only others active in the South Pacific high seas in the past decade — have also been active in certain years, but none worked there in 2020 or 2021.)

Most of the debate in New Zealand is focused on trawling within the country’s EEZ, where campaigners are calling for restrictions rather than an outright ban.

A parliamentary committee reviewed the DSCC’s petition this year and also heard evidence from Deepwater Group (DWG), an industry lobby, which submitted its own report. DWG contends not only that the DSCC is using a loose and unscientific definition of “seamount” but also that there’s little evidence that seamounts have the especially high degree of endemism that the DSCC claims. New Zealand’s fisheries are among the most well-managed in the world, the DWG report says, and the three largest orange roughy fisheries, and those for some other species, are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council.

In its report, DWG argues that current trawling practices are “low risk to corals and seabed habitats” and that ecological concerns must be balanced with the need for food production: about 80% of the country’s wild seafood comes from bottom trawling, the group says. (Much of the trawled catch is exported, mainly to Australia, China, France and Germany, according to research by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.)

In June, following these submissions, Parliament’s Environment Committee issued a report on the seamount petition, which Thomas of the DSCC referred to as “wishy washy.” Parliament effectively punted to MPI, the fisheries monitoring agency, which is now conducting a forum on the issue, she said.

Banner image: A New Zealand deep sea trawler after hauling its catch from international waters in the Tasman Sea in 2004. Image © Greenpeace / Roger Grace.


Sala, E., Mayorga, J., Bradley, D., Cabral, R. B., Atwood, T. B., Auber, A., … Lubchenco, J. (2021). Protecting the global ocean for biodiversity, food and climate. Nature592(7854), 397-402. doi:10.1038/s41586-021-03371-z

Oberle, F. K., Storlazzi, C. D., & Hanebuth, T. J. (2016). What a drag: Quantifying the global impact of chronic bottom trawling on continental shelf sediment. Journal of Marine Systems159, 109-119. doi:10.1016/j.jmarsys.2015.12.007

Oberle, F. K., Swarzenski, P. W., Reddy, C. M., Nelson, R. K., Baasch, B., & Hanebuth, T. J. (2016). Deciphering the lithological consequences of bottom trawling to sedimentary habitats on the shelf. Journal of Marine Systems159, 120-131. doi:10.1016/j.jmarsys.2015.12.008

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