EFEBy Rocio Otoya Sydney

Illegal fishermen in Antarctica in search of the toothfish, known as "white gold" for the high price it fetches in exclusive markets throughout the world, will have to face reinforced protection measures for this species.

The New Zealand navy and the conservation group Sea Shepherd, who are patrolling the Antarctic waters since the campaign began in December, have detected four ships with flags of convenience and estimate that there are at least two more ships fishing illegally.

"These ships don't have permission, change their flags, change their names and it is difficult to know to whom they belong and who the owners are," Rafaella Tolicetti, an activist aboard one of the Sea Shepherd ships, told Efe.

The four ships have been identified as Thunder, sporting a Nigerian flag, as well as the vessels Yongding, Kunlun and Songhua, which, according to the activist, are linked to the Spanish company Vidal Armadores, although this connection has not yet been proved.

New Zealand's foreign minister, Murray McCully, said that although the country's authorities have not been aboard any of the intercepted ships, they have abundant proof against them and are working with Spain in investigating the matter.

Moreover, Interpol has also issued a purple notice for the four ships whose cargo could be worth $8 million in the South-east Asian black market.

The fishing quotas in the Antartic waters is set by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, CCAMLR, an international body comprising 25 members including Australia, New Zealand, the European Union, Spain, China, Japan, Russia and Latin American countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay.

One needs to be a signatory to the CCAMLR to press charges against a ship engaged in illegal fishing in Antartic waters.

The fight against illegal fishing in Antarctica is inhibited not only by the vast expanse of this remote area but also by a lack of resources or committment by governments to send ships to patrol the region's waters.

Tolicetti also pointed out how "the lack of fear of authority" was hindering the process of keeping illegal fishing in check, despite the "seizing of nets and confiscation of fishing material" by the Sea Shepherd.

The activist said that although the illegal fishermen are threatened by the monitoring conducted by the New Zealand authorities and the environmental organization, they still find it lucrative to get away with simply paying a fine for carrying illegal cargo.

This is what happened with the vessel Thunder, whose cargo was confiscated at a Malaysian port in April last year and the ship fined a sum of $74,000, only to have its cargo returned to it later.