The annual scramble to catch Antarctic toothfish in the Ross Sea south of New Zealand for wealthy American diners is unduly putting lives at risk, and making New Zealand taxpayer picking up the bill for rescue operations, opposition parties say.
The Jung Woo 2 of Korea yesterday became the latest fishing vessel to strike difficulties in the Ross Sea toothfish fishery when it caught fire, reportedly taking the lives of three crew members and injuring others.
Last month a Russian vessel, the Sparta, struck an iceberg in the Ross Sea and a year ago another Korean vessel, the In Sung No 1, sank with the loss of 22 lives there.
Competition for the fish compounded the risk for vessels in what was an extremely hostile environment in the first place, said Greens oceans spokesman Gareth Hughes.
"It's a race to see who can catch the most within the total allowable catch so the incentive is to keep fishing as fast as you can regardless of the weather conditions."
Scientific vessels operating in the Ross Sea must meet strict safety criteria, but rules for fishing boats are less strict.
Labour's environment spokesman Grant Robertson said the recent incidents raised serious concerns about the fishery.
"Obviously the concern is about the safety ... but also ... there is a cost to the New Zealand taxpayer in terms of our role in administering things around the Ross Sea," he said.
New Zealand should push for better safety standards during international talks about the administration of Antarctica, he said.
Mr Hughes said the Greens supported calls by leading marine scientists for the entire Ross Sea to be declared a Marine Protection Area (MPA) where fishing is prohibited.
But New Zealand last year came up with an alternative scenario that excludes important toothfish catch areas but protects vast areas of ocean where none are caught at all.
Mr Hughes believed the New Zealand fishing industry was "directly behind" the move to soften the MPA proposal.
"I think the fishing industry in New Zealand does have a lot of political clout."
Mr Robertson said Labour supported an MPA in the Ross Sea, but didn't advocate for outright ban on fishing there.
"But ... [any fishing] there does need to recognise the environmental importance of the Antarctic region."