NZ Orions probe among icebergs for fish pirates
PHILIP ENGLISH joins an Air Force team working to preserve the toothfish.

Early in the morning a Royal New Zealand Air Force Orion takes off from Dunedin on an 11-hour surveillance patrol to search for toothfish pirates deep in the Southern Ocean.

Five minutes before takeoff, the aircraft captain, Flight Lieutenant Dave Lampen-Smith, and mission commander, Flight Lieutenant Brett Mitchell, brief the crew.

They discuss the planned route, possible scenarios for discovering illegal fishing boats, the weather, and safety procedures in the event of a ditching.

The crew expect to make contact with fishermen long-lining illegally for toothfish, a long-lived, slow-breeding species that can grow to 2 metres.

Many people fear the fish is headed for extinction, or commercial extinction at least, within a few years.

It is estimated that 100,000 tonnes of the fish worth hundreds of millions of dollars are caught by the pirates each year compared with a catch of only a few thousand tonnes caught legally under the rules of the 23-nation Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.

The pirates' activities have other effects on the sub-Antarctic ecosystem: tens of thousands of albatrosses and petrels are snagged and drowned.

The pirates, who fish for toothfish outside commission regulations, may be using boats owned by commission nations but registered under flags of convenience.

The presence of a Spanish interpreter on board the Orion indicates that Spanish boats crewed by Spaniards are in the area illegally, although Spain is a member of the commission, as is New Zealand.

The electronic sensors on the venerable Orion are ageing but the crew say that on a calm day they can pick up a school of dolphins on the surface 20km away.

Three hours south of Dunedin, the surveillance operation begins and the airplane descends to 9000ft but still above cloud cover.

Outside there is "nil significant weather." Down below there is a swell of 1.5m. The deep blue sea has a surface temperature of 5 degrees.

After half an hour on patrol, the Orion is in iceberg territory.

Electronics officer Russell Simons is the first to report a possible contact: "I'm fairly sure that's an iceberg but I can't be sure."

Flight Lieutenant Lampen-Smith: "I'd rather be safe than sorry." Co-pilot Flight-Lieutenant Mike Corkill: "We are on to our first possible contact and are descending to 1000ft. Mae Wests on, everybody."

The aircraft dives again, to 200ft.

Radar operator Sergeant Aaron Wright reports the contact as 13 miles away. Then: "There's another contact point nine miles beyond that. This one's a similar size."

Seven miles from the contact Flight Lieutenant Lampen-Smith confirms it visually: "I have contact. Yes, we've got an iceberg on our nose ... For those of you who have not seen an iceberg before there is one coming up on the port side of the aircraft."

Most of the time the operators of the Orion's electronic sensors can identify the icebergs but sometimes one will appear on their screens to be a boat.

In the next four-and-a-half hours the Orion will go on full alert several times and each time it will descend to 200ft expecting a fishing boat but seeing only icebergs.

As the patrol flies further south, the icebergs show up on radar like the Hauraki Gulf full of yachts on a good summer's day.

The presence of the icebergs, some huge, some small, means that any pirates will be steering clear of the patrol area because, apart from being a navigational hazard, they snag their long lines. But the pirates might also use them to hide behind.

As the patrol continues, the electronics crew remain in front of their sensing equipment in the Orion's darkened cabin.

Eight hours after leaving Dunedin and five hours after beginning the patrol, the Orion and its sensors have covered 320,000 sq km, an area about three times the size of the South Island. In three more hours it will be back in Dunedin.

Like other crew members, Flight Lieutenant Lampen-Smith is disappointed that they did not find pirates but pronounces himself "happily confident" that there were none in the patrol zone.

"We do our job. We take it really seriously. Everyone knows what everyone else has got to do. Everyone does his bit."

The crew know that with upgraded equipment the Orions could do even better.

They could search a bigger area using the same amount of fuel and with a higher detection rate.

The crew also know that the Government is considering scrapping the aircraft.

Surveillance patrols deep into the Southern Ocean could be done by a contractor but no other aircraft would have the endurance of an Orion to carry them out.