Australian fishermen are threatening to arm their vessels against Indonesian-based fishing boats which are poaching the prized Patagonian toothfish from Antarctic waters. The toothfish is especially prized in Europe, the United States and Japan, where buyers can pay up to A$2,000 (HK$8,500) for a single fish. It is so valuable it has been dubbed 'white gold', and illegal fishing is rife. The fishermen say the area in which they are working is so remote - 4,500km southwest of Perth in Western Australia - that the Royal Australian Navy is all but useless. Instead, they are seeking permission to employ armed security guards who would be able to stop the foreign boats, arrest the mainly Indonesian and Chinese crews, and tow the vessels back to Australia to face justice. A documentary screened on Australian Broadcasting Corporation television last night alleged a Hong Kong-based seafood supplier was heavily involved in the illicit trade, which threatens to push the toothfish to extinction. The Four Corners programme alleged Pacific Andes International Holdings, which is listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange, controls a fleet of illegal fishing boats through a subsidiary company, PT-Sun Hope Investments, based in Jakarta. The company refused to comment yesterday when contact by the South China Morning Post, saying relevant staff would be unavailable until tomorrow. Chris Masters, the award-winning journalist who presented the programme, said: 'Pacific Andes are a major force behind this illegal enterprise in the Southern Ocean. They have a 19 per cent shareholding in PT-Sun Hope and there are a string of mutual directorships.' In a statement to the programme, the company denied any involvement in the illegal toothfish trade. According to its Web site, the firm is one of the largest suppliers of frozen seafood to China and sells fish to customers in 18 countries around the world. The documentary said most of the crew used on the pirate fishing boats were Indonesian and mainland Chinese who were paid just A$100 a month. The boats operate in some of the roughest, coldest waters in the world, fishing around Heard and McDonald islands, sub-Antarctic pinpricks of land owned by Australia. Since 1997, Perth-based Austral Fisheries has been the only company granted a licence by the government to catch the toothfish. Managing director David Carter admitted arming the boats was a desperate measure but said it could be the only way to protect the species against being fished to extinction. Experts say the A$25 million-a-year industry could collapse within two years. 'The boats would have on board [trained] security people and they would have some capacity to defend themselves. It's not like giving a fisherman a gun,' Mr Carter said. 'We'd be looking to make a citizen's arrest, and we'd be looking to take control of these vessels, to bring them back to Australian ports.' While Austral is permitted to catch 2,815 tonnes a year, pirate boats are netting more than 2,000 tonnes every month. Mr Carter said poaching was a high-return, low-risk business. 'If we're not prepared to protect it, then other folks will simply take it. We want to increase the risk for them.' But Ian MacDonald, the Minister for Forestry and Conservation, said arming Australian fishing boats would be illegal, and promised to improve the navy's surveillance and enforcement capability. 'We are determined to make sure that, in the future, when we come across people illegally fishing in the Southern Ocean, that boat will not be able to ignore us,' he said. 'It will be arrested and it will be brought back to Australia to be dealt with according to Australian law.' But the fishermen are not convinced. In July this year, when a pirate ship was intercepted, Australia had to rely on the French navy to take action after the vessel successfully evaded an Australian naval patrol. Last year Australian and South African navy boats seized a Togo-registered fishing boat and its crew off South Africa after a 10-day chase across the Southern Oceanand Indian Ocean. The boat's illicit cargo of toothfish was estimated to have been worth more than A$1 million.