Criminal gangs are becoming a growing problem in Adelaide, Australia, but unlike most other gangs, these criminals are not fighting over drugs, precious stones or illegal firearms – they’re in it for the fish.

Despite this, the war on gangs launched by Adelaide authorities includes all the usual features; moonlight raids, fencing criminals, confiscation of secret stashes, and officials being seriously assaulted by criminals trying to evade the long arm of the law.

Thanks to a growing black market in restricted fish and shellfish, poachers can earn thousands of dollar per week along the windswept beaches and mangrove forests of South Australia. The 100 km piece of coastline running from Garden Island in the Port River Estuary to Bald Hills Beach, just south of Port Wakefield, seems to be especially popular among pilferers, with 108 reports of illegal fishing this year.

“This coastline is a reasonably inaccessible area, there are few roads and lots of thick mangrove scrub”, says PIRSA* Fisheries director Will Zacharin.

Often working in gangs of three, poachers build fishing platforms inside the thick mangrove forest and stash their nets and other equipment there.

Special joint operations are now carried out by police and PIRSA Fisheries to crack down on gangs taking undersized fish and selling fish of commercial quantities without a license. Fisheries are also working with interstate counterparts to investigate gangs trafficking abalone, crayfish and Murray cod. Sometimes, officers find more than just frutti di mare – one current prosecution for crayfish trafficking does for instance include the sale of and distribution of drugs.s

The officers, who work in pairs, are armed with capsicum spray for personal protection, but this isn’t always enough when facing poachers in possession of illegal firearms.

“There are incidents where we have seized illegally caught seafood and the offenders have also been in possession of illegal firearms, cash and drugs,” says Mr Zacharin. “They [the officers] are regularly threatened, sometimes verbally and some physically, and we have had incidents where officers have been manhandled which we report to police and resulted in
people charged with assault.”

According to Wildcatch Fisheries SA, the state’s commercial fishing body, black-market trade in fish and other marine creatures is a growing problem in the region.

”There’s a view among the industry that poaching is a growing issue – it’s definitely something over the last couple of years which is becoming more apparent,” says General manager Neil MacDonald.

In the Adelaide region, 11 poachers have been fined $315 each this year and 10 illegal nets have been confiscated, each being about 1 km long. Statewide, poaching investigations have resulted in 135 cautions and 57 fines.

* The Department of Primary Industries and Resources SA