The poaching of sharks by crews on Indonesian fishing boats has reached a crisis point in Australian waters and the government is ill-prepared to cope, say fishermen.
Members of the Australian fishing industry and the Labor opposition say the government is not doing enough to deter or catch the illegal fishing vessels, many believed to be backed by well-organised criminal syndicates.
'Illegal fishing off the northern Australian coast is now out of control,' Gavan O'Connor, fisheries spokesman for the Labor Party, told ABC radio.
He said Australian fishing crews were at risk from piracy. 'It's only a matter of time before someone gets hurt,' he said.
Fishermen in Western Australia and the Northern Territory are reporting an increasing number of Indonesian boats catching sharks, with some brazenly fishing a few kilometres offshore. The fins are cut off and sold to restaurants across Asia.
Foreign fishermen also poach the prized trocus shell and beche-de-mer, or sea cucumber.
In Western Australia, about 25 illegal fishing vessels are spotted every day off the port of Broome alone.
Three boats were seized by authorities last week but at least 20 others escaped.
Australian fishermen said they were not receiving enough protection from fisheries vessels or the Royal Australian Navy.
'We're fishing in extremely remote areas and there isn't anyone out there to help us,' said Doug Rogers, of the Northern Shark Industry Association. 'We're very, very concerned, both for the stock and for our future.'
According to intelligence reports seen by the ABC, the government expects an increase in poaching because the Indonesian boats are being better funded.
Fisheries Minister Ian Macdonald said the 22 customs and navy vessels conducting regular patrols were adequate. 'It's a battle we will win,' he said.
Earlier this year he said there was evidence that the poaching was being organised by transnational criminal syndicates.