The Offshore Patrol Vessel HMNZS Wellington, patrolling in the Southern Ocean, has found a small fleet of three Patagonian Toothfish poachers, one operating under the flag of Equitorial Guinea. The NZ Herald reports the Equitorial Guinean authorities have given permission for the boats to be boarded but according to Radio New Zealand the poachers have simply refused to allow the Navy crews to do so. The Navy has decided that rather than risk the safety of its crews it will simply stand by and watch.
The relevant international conventions for Toothfish operations in the Ross Sea are the UN Convention on Fishing and Conservation of the Living Resources of the High Seas (1958) and the the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources according to the Coalition of Legal Toothfish Operators Inc.factsheet. However nations that don't sign up to any of these conventions (e.g. Uruguay) effectively fall outside any legal framework for conservation of international maritime resources. Moreover the list of toothfish poaching vessels maintained by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources indicates that there is no effective legal framework for dealing with these poachers.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald one of the ships she is the Kunlun, owned by Stanely Management based in Panama City which is obviously a shell company just as the registration of the ship to Equitorial Guinea is a clearly a flag of convenience. In other words the owners of the ships who send their impoverished crews into the dangerous southern oceans are sheltering behind a high wall of legal niceties and lack of international cooperation making them effectively impossible to hold accountable.
This brings us back to the HMNZS Wellington. Wellington is a 1,600T, 85m long patrol ship armed with a 25mm cannon, two 0.50HMGs, a Seasprite helicopter and RHIBs. It is perfectly obvious that HMNZS Wellington could easily use lethal force against the poaching ships. The 25mm cannon could easily sink them and the 0.50HMG could turn the steel hull into a collander. But there are obvious problems with this. First HMNZS Wellington is a long way from land. She hasn't the power to tow the poachers, she doesn't have a large brig, she doesn't have a hospital able to treat anyone wounded by shooting and she hasn't got much in the way of less than lethal weaponry. So the politicians have two choices: murder on the high seas over toothfish or being ineffectual. And given a choice between being ineffectual and being hairy chested and decisive the average New Zealand politician will choose the ineffectual path every time.
Which raises the point I made on my defence site that the two OPVs (Wellington and Otago) are not really suited to operations in the Great Southern Ocean anyway. They are simply too small and too vulnerable. They can deal with small island fishing vessels but not the size of ocean going trawlers in the Great Southern Ocean. Instead I propose EPVs based on the Norwegian EPV the KV Svalbard.
Svalbard is a 6,375T 103m ship with ice-breaking capability, serious fire-fighting capability and able to tow ships up to 100,000 tonnes. This is a ship that can use its size, its less-than-lethal fire hoses to be far more imposing on poachers than HMNZS Wellington. As always in military matters equipment dictates policy options.
The choice to be weak started when the Navy opted for cheap solutions to offshore patrol vessels as part of Project Protector.