Strict controls were imposed on Antarctic fish resources last year under a 23-nation Antarctic fisheries control agreement, known as the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.
But "reflagged" fishing vessels from Spain, Norway and even the United States - all co-signers to the agreement - are among those plundering toothfish, according to New Zealand government officials. More than 40 vessels have taken over 30,000 tonnes of toothfish in South Africa's sub- Antarctic waters, Simon Upton, New Zealand's associate Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister, said yesterday.
"Toothfish has a very high value in Southeast Asia. In Japan, it is almost worth bars of gold," said Commandant Bernard O'Mahony, spokesman for France's Marine Nationale. O'Mahony confirmed French forces had intercepted two fishing vessels in the protected zone around its sub-Antarctic Crozet Island.
On 31 March, the Singaporean ship Belgie III was apprehended carrying toothfish. On April 19, the Portuguese ship Mar L'argo was caught. "Since mid-March, the French government insisted on reinforcing the presence of the Marine Nationale in this area in order to protect it," he said.
Jean-Claude Nola, a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry, said a frigate and two towboats had been sent to the area. South Africa is reported ready to send warships and maritime surveillance airplanes to try to halt the illegal fishing.
Poachers are raiding toothfish areas around France and Australia's sub- Antarctic Heard and McDonald Islands. Britain has already used gunboats to chase out Spanish and Norwegian fishing boats around its South Georgia islands in the Falklands. Those ships reportedly fly Chilean and Argentine "flags of convenience."
Not much is known of the fish, first named five years ago the "Patagonian toothfish." It is a long fish with a large mouth and is believed to be bottom-dwelling, living off cod. It lives for up to 25 years.
Spanish and Norwegian boats are also deliberately breaching the agreements made by their governments, using Panamanian and Vanuatuan flags to disguise themselves, New Zealand officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. US and Japanese vessels were also reported to be involved, they said.
New Zealand's sub-Antarctic island waters and Ross Sea Dependency are seen as a new area for potential plunder. Upton said a New Zealand Air Force surveillance plane had already made one trip to the Antarctic and it would be returning regularly. He said the illegal fishing threatened the fragile Antarctic ecosystem.
"It may pose a threat to the waters south of New Zealand, if reports that this fishing is continuing to spread westwards into French and Australian Antarctic waters, are borne out," he said.
Any military protection of the region is handicapped by the vast distances involved and influenced by the role of the gateway countries, New Zealand, Australia, Chile, Argentina and South Africa.