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3. Compliance with Commonwealth fisheries laws and policies and relevant international fishing obligations and standards


Non-compliance with AFMA’s domestic management rules and regulations undermines ecological sustainability as well as the value of fishing concessions which ultimately affects the value and viability of Australia’s fishing industry.

Our international compliance activities ensure that Australia’s fish stocks and the marine environment are not adversely affected by illegal foreign fishing.

National Compliance (Domestic)


Measure 3: Governance arrangements for domestic compliance program in place and remain relevant.





National Compliance and Enforcement Policy reviewed every two years

Risk assessment reviewed every two years

NCEP developed and implemented annually

Measure 4: Effective risk based domestic compliance programs in place.





Non-compliance incident levels in targeted risk areas maintained at current levels or reduced

Treatment targets for all priority compliance risks met

75% (24/32)11

Source: AFMA's chapter in the Agriculture, Water and the Environment 2020-21 Portfolio Budget Statements p. 235 and in AFMA's Corporate Plan for 2019-22 p. 26.

11Note: 97 per cent (31/32) of performance targets were met or within threshold targets.

Methods for measuring performance

The Policy, Risk Assessment and Program reviews for Commonwealth fisheries are scheduled core functions within the Fisheries Operations Branch (FOB). Policy reviews are undertaken within FOB through the Operational Management Committee (OMC) and approved by the AFMA CEO and endorsed by the Commission. Risk assessments are conducted utilising published methodology and input from stakeholder groups which is used to inform the development of the annual NCEP. This is developed by the National Compliance Strategy team, considered by the OMC and approved by the AFMA CEO. Compliance data is routinely collected as part of program delivery and the NCEP contains identified performance targets across activities, including the prioritised risks where the activities and outcomes against these targets are routinely monitored and reported against monthly and annually.

Due to the nature of compliance programs, it is inherently difficult to assess their effectiveness in terms of outcomes. As a result, the effectiveness of the program (i.e. how well the program is meeting its aims and objectives) is assessed through the use of multiple outcome targets wherever possible, as well as input and output targets where a suitable ‘outcome target’ are not able to be identified.

It is recognised that not all performance targets or thresholds will be met due to the changing nature of risks and changes in fisheries practices. In addition, and in recognition of the flexibility required to ensure effective targeting of prioritised risks (and the particular impact that required flexibility has on the resources available for other programs), an acceptable ‘threshold band’ has also been set for each target.

In 2020-21, 24 of the 32 performance targets for priority compliance risks were met, whilst 31 of the 32 were met or were within the threshold level.


National Compliance (Domestic)

AFMA’s National Compliance Operations and Enforcement Policy (the policy) aims to effectively deter illegal fishing Commonwealth fisheries and the AFZ.

In order to achieve the policy objective, the risk based 2020-21 NCEP consisted of four main components:

  • Communication and Education
  • General Deterrence
  • Targeted Risk
  • Maintenance

Communication and Education

As part of our strategy to promote voluntary compliance our fisheries officers conducted infield education sessions and pre-season briefings in a variety of ports. These were to inform Commonwealth fishers on the principles of the compliance and enforcement program and potential consequences of being caught committing offences.

Specific in-field education programs were provided in the Torres Strait in relation to the Tropical Rock Lobster season closures, Catch Documentation Record completion and the Black Teatfish fishery trial opening. This included one on one education and awareness sessions with stakeholders on Murray, Coconut, Yorke, Burke and Mimi Islands.

Monthly compliance articles were posted on AFMA’s website and Facebook pages with messages being sent to fishers on a regular basis. These included a joint media release with Parks Australia on Australian Marine Parks about new seabird interaction mitigation rules and reporting requirements in the ETBF. Reminders to fishers on their e-monitoring requirements were also distributed.

Four of the six Communication and Education performance targets were met in 2020-21 with the remaining two performance targets within acceptable thresholds.

General Deterrence Program

AFMA fisheries officers visit Commonwealth ports, conduct boat, at-sea and fish receiver inspections as part of their regular duties. AFMA’s presence acts as a deterrent to non-compliant activity and provides a mechanism to assist those wishing to comply by providing clarity around the fisheries management arrangements and particular rules which apply.

During 2020-21, AFMA fisheries officers visited fishing ports on 182 occasions where they conducted 295 boat inspections (17 at sea) and 140 fish receiver inspections. Officers undertook 49 desktop inspections (total of 484 inspections).

Despite travel restrictions imposed during COVID-19 lockdowns, the number of inspections returned to pre-COVID-19 levels with the 2020-21 figures comparable to the 356 boat and 146 fish receiver premises inspections conducted in 2018-19 and well above the 289 boat inspections and 88 fish receiver inspections in 2019-20. High levels of compliance were observed with 89 per cent of inspections requiring no further action. This was, however, below the program target rate for voluntary compliance of 95 per cent.

During 2020-21,180 investigations were commenced and 35 matters carried over from the 2019-20 financial year. A total of 197 matters were closed and 18 matters requiring further investigation are still open. Of the 197 matters closed, 22 warnings and 23 cautions were issued, two Commonwealth Fisheries Infringement Notices issued, seven cases involving 12 individuals taken to court, one suspension of a fishing authorisation and 142 matters required no further action.

Eight of the nine performance targets for the general deterrence program were met in
2020-21 with the remaining one being within the threshold limit.

Targeted Risk Program

The prioritised risks identified in the 2019-21 domestic compliance risk assessment and the focus of the 2020-21 program are:

  • Failure to report interaction/retention of protected or prohibited species
  • Quota evasion
  • Bycatch mishandling
  • Torres Strait Fisheries.

Ten of the 13 performance targets for the Targeted Risk Program were met in 2020-21, one target was not met and the remaining two were within threshold tolerance.

Failure to report interaction/retention of protected or prohibited species

During 2020-21, there were 38 incidents of non-reporting of Threatened, Endangered and Protected species interactions detected, 18 of which required further investigation. The 18 matters1 in 2020-21 is an increase from the 11 matters requiring investigation in 2019-20, seven in 2018-19, ten in 2017-18 and 13 in 2016-17.

Each of the 2020-21 matters was dealt with by way of education, warnings or referred to another agency for further action.

Two of the three failure to report interaction/retention of protected or prohibited species performance targets were met in 2020-21.

Quota evasion

Quota evasion is the deliberate misreporting, or non-reporting, of the volume and/or species of catch caught in Commonwealth waters. All Commonwealth fishers are required to accurately report their catch to AFMA through Catch Disposal Records.

In 2020-21 the National Compliance Strategy Section continued with the covert video surveillance program(s) to provide an indicative measure on the level of quota evasion. This surveillance focused on identifying discrepancies in reported landings by Commonwealth endorsed boats, with specific focus on identified ‘high risk’ vessels. The recorded footage is analysed and compared against that trip’s corresponding catch disposal record. In addition to identifying boat level breaches relating to quota, this data is extrapolated and used broadly to estimate what level quota evasion may be present on a fleet-wide level.

Three of the three quota evasion performance targets were met in 2020-21.

Bycatch mishandling

In 2020-21 we continued our education and communication programs with industry to outline the risk of bycatch mishandling.

There were 17 reports of alleged bycatch mishandling during 2020-21, ten of which required further investigation. The overall instances of bycatch mishandling reports (requiring investigation) during 2020-21 averaged 0.8 reports per month which is below the
2019-20 average of 1.25 per month and the long-term average of 1.7 per month. It is also well down on the 4.2 per month which occurred prior to new rules being implemented and targeted education campaigns being launched in October 2016. Bycatch mishandling incidents were principally dealt with by way of education sessions, cautions and warnings.

Both bycatch mishandling performance measures were met during 2020-21.

Torres Strait Fishery

In the Torres Strait Fishery fisheries officers participated in 10 joint ‘at-sea’ patrols, alongside agencies such as the Australian Border Force and QWP.

AFMA officers conducted 62 boat inspections, 68 fish receiver premises inspections and visited ports/freight hubs on 45 occasions. AFMA officers also participated in 22 stakeholder/community meetings to deliver information sessions on compliance related matters.

One on one education and awareness sessions with fishermen and fish receivers were undertaken at every opportunity to encourage voluntary compliance in the Torres Strait Fisheries. Whilst compliance rates were generally high, a number of matters resulted in formal warnings being issued or further investigation conducted.

Three of the Torres Strait Fishery performance targets were met or exceeded, with the two remaining performance targets within the threshold limit in 2020-21.

Maintenance Programs

Since the establishment of the risk-based program in 2009, there have been a number of identified risks which were prioritised for treatment (in previous years) and addressed through specific risk treatment programs. These risks are considered to have been addressed to a manageable level but warrant ongoing monitoring:

  • VMS and EM
  • Quota Reconciliation
  • Closure Monitoring

Two of the four performance targets for the Maintenance Treatment Program were met in 2020-21 and two were within threshold tolerance.

Vessel Monitoring System (VMS)

VMS compliance rates remained high with an average of 96.7 per cent of all Commonwealth vessels reporting to AFMA via their VMS at any one time, slightly below the average target of 98 per cent for the year.

During November and December 2020 VMS compliance rates began to noticeably decline. As a result, AFMA implemented a ‘zero-tolerance’ program throughout January. This included education and media along with targeted enforcement. Average compliance rates also increased from 96.7 per cent in December to 97.4 per cent in January.

There were 25 incidents of VMS non-compliance investigated in 2020-21. The main reasons for non-compliance were unit failures or switching off units without seeking prior Temporary Switch Off approval. Most fishers were educated with respect to their obligations, with two warnings issued and one vessel ordered to port.

The VMS performance target was not met but was within threshold tolerances during


There were 14 incidents of non-compliance with EM requirements. The main reasons for non-compliance were failing to maintain (clean) cameras, camera obstructions or system failures. Most fishers were educated with regard to their obligations, with one caution issued.

The EM performance target was not met but was within threshold tolerances during 2020-21.

Quota Reconciliation

A total of 12 fishers failed to reconcile their over catches by the due date, lower than the 13 instances in 2019-20, but up on the six instances in 2018-19. However, it is down significantly from 2017-18 with 29 instances and 2016-17 with 30 instances. AFMA worked with the 12 fishers to resolve most of the matters, with ten fishers issued with Official Cautions and two fishers having their fishing concessions suspended until they reconciled.

The quota reconciliation performance target was met, with an average of 1.1 instances per month.

Fishery Closure Monitoring

There was one detected closure breach during 2020-21. The fisher was given an official caution.

The closure monitoring performance target was met during 2020-21.

AFMA domestic prosecutions for 2020-21

In 2020-21 the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions progressed seven briefs of evidence against 12 individuals referred by AFMA for suspected breaches of the Torres Strait Fisheries Act 1984. A total of 12 defendants were before the courts, resulting in a total of $11,700 in fines, $53,599.84 in forfeiture proceeds from the sale of seized product and $1,134.40 in court costs. The 12 defendants were either convicted and fined or placed on good behaviour bonds for periods of up to two years.

AFMA Fisheries Officers - domestic compliance photo courtesy AFMA
AFMA Fisheries Officers - domestic compliance photo courtesy AFMA

International Compliance


Measure 5: To deter illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing by foreign fishing vessels in Australian waters.





Media releases for major activities and significant outcomes

100 per cent

100 per cent

Number of illegal foreign fishing vessels detected in Australian waters remains low

Incident rates maintained at historical low levels

See narrative

Disposal of apprehended foreign IUU vessels received by AFMA

100 per cent

See narrative

Foreign fishers charged are successfully prosecuted

100 per cent

See narrative

High risk foreign fishing vessels visiting Australian ports inspected

100 per cent

See narrative

High Seas Boarding and Inspection reports by Australian officers submitted, as required, to flag States and IFMO

100 per cent

See narrative

AFMA priorities for meetings and bilateral engagement are incorporated in government briefings and negotiating frameworks

100 per cent


Nominations of non-compliant vessels for IUU listing in accordance with IFMO are successful

100 per cent

See narrative

In-country programs to provide technical, policy and operational advice to build capacity are delivered



Participation in Forum Fisheries Agency-led cooperative training activities and multilateral maritime surveillance activities, as appropriate



Australian officers target IUU threats and engage flag States to implement remedial actions

100 per cent of identified suspected non-compliant actions acted on


Source: AFMA's chapter in the Agriculture, Water and the Environment 2020-21 Portfolio Budget Statements p. 235 and in AFMA's Corporate Plan for 2019-22 p. 27.

Methods for measuring performance

AFMA’s program to combat IUU fishing includes effective enforcement and monitoring, regional cooperation, diplomatic representations and engagement measures such as capacity building, education and outreach programs. Working in concert, a multifaceted strategy ensures Australia can readily respond to threats in an efficient and cost-effective manner. AFMA leads investigations and responses into IUU fishing by foreign fishing vessels in Australian waters and in waters where Australia has an interest, and works closely with partner agencies, contributing the fisheries component to Australia’s civil maritime security strategy.

AFMA continued to deliver a risk based ICEP. The five components of the ICEP are communications, enforcement operations, strategic engagement, capacity development and targeted threat response. AFMA built on our networks and collaboration partners to deliver more effective outcomes and responses to IUU fishing. Working in concert with counterparts from flag States, port States, market States and States with nationals involved in IUU fishing ensured that we are targeting those actors that seek to profit from illegal activity.


International Compliance

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted Australia’s enforcement capability to address IUU fishing by foreign fishing vessels. AFMA’s approach with respect to foreign fishers suspected of fishing illegally in the AFZ has been significantly modified in response to operational constraints, particularly the inability to detain and prosecute offenders or bring vessels to port for destruction.

Working closely with our counterparts from Maritime Border Command, alternate measures were initiated that included the seizure of fishing equipment and/or catch found onboard foreign vessels fishing illegally in the AFZ and reinforcing messaging around the risks of fishing illegally inside Australian waters. From 1 July 2020 to 30 July 2021, there were 85 legislative forfeitures of gear and/or catch, including 12 vessel disposals at sea. These vessels were disposed of in accordance with the Maritime Powers Act 2013.

On the water enforcement action was complemented with an array of initiatives including media articles on enforcement action, sharing information relating to incursions by foreign fishing vessels, preparation of targeted education materials and high-level dialogue with officials from the authorities of the flag States. While vessels, fishing gear and catches were seized, because of unacceptable COVID-19 risks to operational officers and the detention and court systems, no foreign fishers were prosecuted, and no foreign fishing vessels were brought to Australia during 2020-21. Disruption to international travel would also have rendered repatriation of prosecuted fishers impossible. With these changes came a noticeable increase in illegal activity during the reporting period.

While enforcement action undertaken against foreign fishers fishing illegally inside the AFZ has increased in 2020-21 compared to 2019-20, the numbers are still significantly below the historical highs seen in the mid-2000s where hundreds of vessels were being apprehended each year. Nonetheless a persistent and enduring threat remains and AFMA is working with our Australian partner government agencies to ensure numbers remain low.

As part of a whole of government response, AFMA worked with Maritime Border Command and Parks Australia to track and recover abandoned and lost fishing gear in Australian waters. Ten ghost nets were recovered and disposed of in accordance with biosecurity requirements in 2020-21. During 2020-21, again due to COVID-19 considerations, no high seas boarding and inspections were undertaken and no vessels were nominated for IUU listing by AFMA. In 2020-21, there were 11 visits to Australian ports by foreign fishing vessels. All vessels were determined to be a low-moderate risk and seven vessels were inspected, recognising that port State measures provide a cost-effective means of preventing, deterring and eliminating illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

During 2020-21, AFMA contributed to whole of Government briefings and participated in a range of international meetings including those held by Regional Fisheries Management Organisations, the CCAMLR, the Forum Fisheries Agency, the Regional Plan of Action on Responsible Fishing Practices, including Combating IUU Fishing and various sub committees.

AFMA participated in multilateral surveillance operations via virtual platforms and was able to meet the majority of capacity building delivery commitments including fisheries specific Monitoring, Control and Surveillance (MCS) skills training in the Pacific and South East Asia. These activities included collaborations with Registered Training Organisations as well as ad hoc presentations.

Under the Niue Treaty Subsidiary Agreement, there were two occasions throughout the year where Tonga and Solomon Islands platforms provided an additional surveillance effort as they transited enroute from Australia to their home ports.

Courses delivered during 2020-21 included MCS training through the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement, a vessel inspection workshop in Myanmar, Operation Gannet and maritime domain awareness training. Additionally, as part of a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade funded program, AFMA officers assisted in the delivery (through the University of South Pacific) of the Certificate IV in Fisheries Compliance and Enforcement to Pacific Island participants. AFMA sought opportunities to mitigate the prioritised risks as set out in the 2020-22 ICEP. Following the boarding by Australia in June 2020 of the stateless fishing vessel, Cobija, suspected of fishing illegally for toothfish, AFMA worked with INTERPOL and port States to share information and to ensure the vessels’ movements were restricted. Australia’s participation in Operation Nasse 2020 was limited to aerial surveillance because of COVID-19 restrictions. AFMA focused its efforts on strengthening VMS processes and actions when potential non-compliance is identified. This involved engagement with Secretariats of relevant regional fisheries bodies and fisheries monitoring centres of relevant flag States.

CASE STUDY: COVID-19 pandemic presents opportunity for innovation in training

A suspension of international travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant effect on the way in which the International Compliance Operations (ICO) team provides operational MCS expertise to international counterparts. Despite the challenges the ICO team has adapted when delivering capacity building programs to foreign officers involved in fisheries management and compliance.

Like many other organisations and industries that have traditionally relied on face-to-face interactions as their core business, AFMA transitioned to the online design, delivery and facilitation of training. Although the rapid move to online learning has not been without challenges, its success has been underpinned by participant’s ability to access reliable internet, technological hardware infrastructure and accessibility. Despite the challenges, the adaptation to the online learning environment has presented a number of opportunities including an increase in innovation, the ability to provide training more frequently and to make training accessible to broader audiences.

An online training delivery strategy, underpinned by integrating 3 tools (an online learning management system, HTML5 content and a live polling program) has facilitated meaningful engagement with training participants. This approach engages with participants who may not be confident speaking in online forums, providing participants with adequate time and resources to acquire knowledge and informing instructors how training delivery and participant understanding is progressing.

In the 2020-21, online training was delivered to over 100 students from more than 15 countries. Courses and content included foundational skills for MCS officers, high-risk vessel inspection methods, maritime domain awareness training and other specialist programs. Looking forward, it is likely that many of the tools and resources implemented in response the COVID-19 pandemic are here to stay as the full potential of online learning technology continues to be realised.

AFMA officer undertaking online learning
AFMA Online Training – Learning Management System photo courtesy AFMA
AFMA Online Training – Learning Management System photo courtesy AFMA


  1. Note that current and historical figures quoted are now based on those matters requiring investigation as opposed to the total number of suspected incidences detected, which were published in previous annual reports.