A seized Vietnamese fishing vessel being destroyed at an Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) disposal site in Darwin. The AFMA says it has seized 74 Vietnamese fishermen since last November for poaching highly endangered giant clams in Australian waters. Three of the boats sank at sea; the other two were burned.
On April Fool's Day, a 38- year-old fishing boat captain named Hieu Xuan Vo was brought before the Darwin Court of Summary Jurisdiction in Australia to face Commonwealth Prosecutor Lyma Nguyen.
Nguyen spent the last few years going after surviving Khmer Rouge cadre, but the prosecutor now set her sights on a relatively small fish.
Australian aircraft allegedly observed Vo's vessel, The Sakon, pulling in hundreds of pounds of sea cucumbers and 48 giant clams over the course of two days last March.
According to media accounts of the proceedings, Vo and his 18 crew members possessed maps featuring shoal markings, scuba equipment and a "lifting pulley" to help haul in the fluorescent blue mollusks that can grow larger than a man and sell for thousands of dollars. Vietnam and Australia both ascribe to the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which lists the clams as "highly endangered."
Vo and his men represent the fifth Vietnamese crew seized by Australian authorities since last November for poaching what are known here as "elephant clams." Seventy four men have been taken at sea, detained and put before the court.
Fourteen others have already been sent back upstream; the rest remain, more or less, without a paddle - in custody, facing fines and deportation for clam rustling, according to Peter Venslovas, the General Manager of Fisheries Operations for the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA).
Vo's publicly appointed attorney reportedly told the magistrate that he owed US$150,000 on his red and blue wooden vessel. Nevertheless, a judge ordered the Sakon and another brightly painted Vietnamese fishing boat burned, three days later, at an AFMA facility in Darwin. The other three vessels involved in the alleged clam poaching efforts reportedly "sank at sea," shortly after their crews were taken into custody.
Vo personally faces $5,000 in fines. He has 28 days to pay and, if he can't come up with the money, he could spend up to three months in Australian prison before being deported.
Representatives from the Darwin Legal Aid Authority declined to comment further on his case. Questions and records requests sent to the Magistrates Court were not answered.
Venslovas wasn't sure what may happen to each individual crew member, but he said the authorities continue to question them about their origins and plans. "To our knowledge, no one has targeted giant clams since 1984," he said before describing the present period as relatively slow for poaching.
At the height of the problem, in 2005, the commonwealth seized some 367 foreign fishing vessels-most of which were burnt.
Then-Fishing Minister Ian McDonald, described the burnings a "public executions" adding that he hoped they would send a firm message to Indonesian fishermen.
"If you come into Australian waters not only will you be fined - perhaps jailed if you don't pay your fine - but also... your boat will be destroyed," he told the BBC.
Venslovas took a tamer approach to the process.
"[All seized wooden vessels] are burned due to concerns about bores and termites on board," he said. "Their resale value in Australia is very little."
While the get-tough approach may have curtailed the volume of poaching (only 20 boats have been seized in the last nine months) Venslovas says, the ecological impact of the recent Vietnamese ventures remains unclear.
"Over 200 giant clams, probably many more, have been taken from a collection of small shoals in waters subject to Australian fisheries jurisdiction," Venslovas wrote in an email.
"This species is very slow growing, very old (many greater than 80 years old), and they don’t successfully reproduce quickly in the wild. The illegal harvest of these clams may represent a local extinction event that may not recover."
The Australians donated the remains of the seized clams to a museum as they continue their investigation.
"We're still gathering scraps of paper to connect dots," Venslovas said. Among those scraps are two Vietnamese media accounts (forwarded by Vietweek) describing a brief clam boom (and subsequent bust) in a small fishing community in Quang Ngai.
In February, Tien Phong newspaper reported that all 70 boats from Binh Chau Commune had gone to sea in the days before Tet seeking fortune.
"This Tet is 'clam tet" Tien Phong quoted a fisherman named Thanh as saying. "Clams bring in billions of Dong, so who cares about Tet?"
The fishermen claimed they were heading out on their second expedition to a secret "underwater forest" somewhere near the Spratly islands. A Chinese trader allegedly offered as much as $500 for "elephant clam" shells. The story closed by saying the fishermen expected to conduct six expeditions a year and believed they would deplete the Giant Clam population in the "near future."
On March 3, Vnexpress reported that Quang Ngai authorities seized a haul of 20 giant clams worth between $25 and $2,000 apiece, depending on their size.
The website cited Binh Chau authorities as saying that many locals had given up the pursuit of fish for giant clams starting in late 2013 because they sold for an average of $500 apiece. Hauls sometimes reached 300 clams or roughly $120,000. Phan Huy Hoang, deputy director of the Quang Ngai Province Department of Agriculture and Rural Development warned that the clams were protected by international treaty which allowed for up to seven years in jail time.
That month, the Australians interdicted four Vietnamese crews poaching clams and took them to Darwin to face a magistrate.
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