Australia links organised crime to illegal fishing

CANBERRA, May 26 (Reuters) - Organised crime groups around the world and even motorcycle gangs are becoming involved in illegal fishing, lured mainly by demand from China for prized fish species, a study by Australian crime experts said.

The groups from China, Australia, Russia, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Japan have all been linked to illegal fishing, with fish stocks either sold illegally or used to launder money, the Australian Institute of Criminology said.

The institute's report on illegal fishing called for greater international cooperation to fight the black market, and said criminal groups targeted prized species in demand in Asia, such as abalone, shark fins and beche-de-mer, or sea cucumber.

"It is clear that overseas illicit markets in seafood products such as abalone, beche-de-mer and shark fin are flourishing, due in part to a steadily increasing demand from mainland China," the institute said.

The Australian-government funded institute said profits from illegal fishing could be high, with the rich in China willing to pay up to $5,000 for meals with top quality abalone, and with demand for shark fin growing an estimated five percent a year.

It said in New Zealand, several coastal abalone fishing areas have been closed, with the official catch of 1,057 tonnes a year estimated to be matched by 1,000 of poached abalone.

The report said as crime groups increased their interest in illegal fishing, there was evidence of growing cooperation between crime groups and motorcycle gangs in different countries.

It said the illegal fish trade could be used to pay off other criminal activities, such as drugs and arms sales, people smuggling and sex slavery.

"A wide range of criminal activities may be associated with the illegal trade, including the concealment of financial transactions and profits," the report said.

"These crimes include violence, corruption, fraud and money laundering, with the transfer of the proceeds of crime across networks and national borders."

It said Australian abalone, shark fin and seahorses were attractive to international poachers, while abalone, lobster, mud crabs, snapper and reef fish were vulnerable to poaching for the domestic market.

Australia's exclusive fishing zone covers 11 million square kilometres (4.2 million square miles), with the commercial fishing harvest worth about A$2.3 billion ($2.2 billion) a year, with about A$1.85 billion worth of seafood exports. ($1=A$1.04) (Editing by Michael Perry and Sanjeev Miglani)