Duo hit with tough new penalties for illegally imported live fish

Two travellers have received civil penalties totalling $54,000 following multiple attempts to circumvent Australia’s biosecurity laws and conceal more than 240 live ornamental fish through Melbourne International Airport.

The matter went before the Federal Court of Australia on Friday 19 April 2024 and is the first-time civil penalties have been issued under the Biosecurity Act 2015.

Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Senator Murray Watt, said the judgement was a significant milestone and should act as a deterrent to all travellers.

“The Albanese Government takes biosecurity incredibly seriously, and we will stop at nothing to protect our agriculture, fisheries and forestry industries and our precious environment,” Minister Watt said.

“Every day our biosecurity officers keep thousands of biosecurity risk materials out of our country and it is vital that the government, industry and the wider community support their efforts.

“The Albanese Government has demonstrated its commitment to strengthening out biosecurity through Australia’s first ever sustainable biosecurity funding model.

“Under the model, importers are paying their fair share for the first time in a decade and the Government is investing an additional $1 billion over four years plus an extra $270 million a year after that.”

“Some of the fish that were attempted to be smuggled into our country are considered pest species to Australia and they posed a huge risk to human, animal and plant health.

“Illegally imported live fish can also impact wild capture fisheries, our growing aquaculture industries and our environment and thereby, our economy.

“Illegally imported live fish can carry diseases and other organisms, or themselves can become a pest and threaten native species.

“Tough civil penalties apply to those who break the law, and all travellers should be aware that serious breaches of Australia’s biosecurity laws may result in civil penalty proceedings being brought against you.

“Travellers must declare all food, animal, plants and seeds on their incoming passenger card when they arrive in Australia and if you are unsure if something can be brought into the country, don’t bring it.

“I would like to thank our biosecurity officers, both on the frontlines and those who investigated this matter, for their diligent efforts.

“This is a great example of why we must ensure our biosecurity system has long-term sustainable funding to protect our environment and agricultural sectors from exotic pests and diseases.”

The penalties relate to two separate incidents that occurred just a month apart. In the first case, on 29 December 2019, a biosecurity officer at Melbourne International Airport found approximately 120 live fish in water during a baggage inspection.

The fish had not been declared on the traveller’s incoming passenger card. The traveller was issued and paid a $420 infringement notice for providing a false or misleading IPC document.

Just a month later after the first incident, on 29 January 2020, the same traveller and his business partner were intercepted on their arrival at Melbourne International Airport and another 122 undeclared live fish in water were found in their baggage.

The department undertook an investigation as a result of the multiple attempts and evidence uncovered during the investigation led the department to undertake the civil penalty proceeding.

Federal Court ruling: 

  • The first traveller received a civil penalty of $37,000 for 2 contraventions of section 186(1) and 1 contravention of section 533(1) of the Biosecurity Act 2015.
  • The business partner received a civil penalty of $17,000 for 1 contraventions of section 186(1) and 1 contravention of section 533(1) of the Biosecurity Act 2015.
  • The court also ordered traveller one and traveller two pay the Commonwealth’s legal costs which are to be determined.
  • Penalties for breaching Australia’s biosecurity laws were increased in 2021 with the passage of Biosecurity Amendment (Strengthening Penalties) Act 2021. This legislation increased the maximum number of penalty units for a contravention s186(2) from 300 to 1000 penalty units. 
    • Immediately prior to commencement of this Act, the maximum penalty for a contravention of s 186(2) by an individual would have been $66,600 – today this contravention would carry a maximum penalty of $313,000.
  • The Biosecurity Amendment (Advanced Compliance Measures) Act 2023 was passed last year and increased the penalty units for providing false and misleading documents under section 533 from 60 to 600 penalty units.
    • Immediately prior to the commencement of this Act, the maximum penalty for a contravention of s 533 by an individual would have been $18,780 – today this contravention would carry a maximum penalty of $187,800.