As a past practitioner of the dark arts of public relations, Foreign Minister Murray McCully should have known his attempt to beat up the navy's interception of three illegal fishing boats in the Southern Ocean was fraught with danger.

Getting the initial headlines was easy enough, in the slow news, summer holiday period.

But he seems to have ignored the hard part - delivering on the expectations he built up, of our sailors braving Antarctic waters to rescue the imperilled Patagonian toothfish and punish the pirates.

The captain of fishery patrol boat HMNZS Wellington has now returned to port with all guns blazing at critics of his failure to board and arrest the offenders.

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He's got the wrong target - again.

The people he should be blaming for his embarrassment are Mr McCully, and Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee.

It's the politicians who had us all on the edge of our couches, waiting for Lieutenant Commander Graham MacLean and his merry men to clamber up the side of the rust buckets and arrest the recidivist pirates.

Instead we got retreat. The pirates refused them permission to board, which they meekly obeyed, then, with fuel running out, they retired back to New Zealand while the plundering continued.

If it was PR stunts Mr McCully wanted to draw attention to his Government's concern for dwindling fish stocks, then he should have looked north to Indonesia

Last month, President Joko Widodo demonstrated his intention to get tough with illegal fishing around his nation's waters with a policy of "shock treatment".

With camera crews in tow, an Indonesian patrol vessel removed the crews from three illegal Vietnamese fishing boats, then sank them with missiles. The President told a public meeting, "There is no need to arrest them, just sink them."

It's this gung-ho approach that New Zealand First defence spokesman Ron Mark seems to hanker for.

"It's a long way from the no-nonsense military of 1976 when an A4 Skyhawk ... of the now disbanded 75 Squadron fired on a Taiwanese trawler. My, how we have changed."

When refused access, he says the Wellington should have sent a warning shot across the bow. "Should these vessels refuse boarding then we must be prepared to use force."

Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, Phil Goff, agrees, throwing in the threat of fouling their propellers as an alternative.

"Unless you show you are willing to take action, they'll treat you with contempt. If they can give you a one-fingered salute and go on their merry way, why do we bother putting the ship out there. What's the point?"

He says the Government is "risk-averse" and should have issued tough "rules of engagement" to the Wellington's crew when they caught a poacher "red-handed like this" to board it, confiscate the fishing gear and catch, and seize as much documentary evidence as possible.

He said there was no point in towing the "rust buckets" back to port, once their fishing gear and catch were removed.

Acknowledging there was a faint possibility the owners, or the nation the ships claimed to be flagged to, could claim damages in New Zealand or an overseas court, he said that was "a pretty low risk, these guys won't want the publicity".

A good point.

The Government has identified the three vessels as notorious fishing pirates. Since 2008, the Songhua has had at least eight names under six flags. Since 2001, the Yongding has had at least 11 name changes and nine different flags. The Kunlun has had 10 different names since 2006 and flown five different flags.

Chances are, they've already rebranded themselves again.

True, what the Opposition politicians are suggesting sounds rather Wild West, but that is the state of affairs as far as protecting fisheries in the open seas is concerned.

International controls are very weak. The ships are currently flying Equatorial Guinea flags of convenience.

No discipline can be expected from that quarter.

The identities and nationalities of the masters and crews are unknown, so prosecutions are unlikely there. If the catch gets to a port, it will soon disappear on to the lucrative blackmarket.

President Widodo's "shock therapy" may have been a step too far, but it will certainly have made the fish pirates sit up in a way Minister McCully's little exercise has not.

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