Inside Queensland's on-water border patrol response

Maritime Safety Queensland

It's no secret that Maritime Safety Queensland has developed a number of new initiatives in response to COVID-19, from ensuring the welfare of our international seafarers to supporting remote community access for essential maritime services. But for a long, cold week in August we needed to take it up a notch, implementing 24/7 on-water border management patrols.

Prior to the Queensland Government's second border closure announcement, MSQ was randomly intercepting vessels of interest, such as those with an interstate registration. If the people onboard were found to have entered Queensland waters without the required documentation, they were directed to quarantine on their vessel or leave Queensland waters immediately.

When the second border closure was announced, MSQ's Incident Management Team knew a coordinated response was required to address the potential influx of vessels trying to enter Queensland, some of them without the required documentation. To counter this, seven days of 24/7 border management patrols commenced on Monday 3 August.

During COVID-19, MSQ has become experienced in developing new and effective processes in very short timeframes, and the 24/7 border management patrols were no exception. Maritime Border Management Manager Kris Chant put the call out to MSQ's regional offices, looking to create a register of MSQ staff with compliance experience, and marine driver licences who could get out on Gold Coast waters as soon as possible to begin formal border patrols. We quickly had a full roster of border patrol officers, with staff travelling to the Gold Coast from our Cairns, Gladstone and Pinkenba marine operations bases.

“We anticipated a lot of vessels trying to cross the border before the closure and it was imperative the right vessels were targeted, so MSQ patrol officers worked closely with the MSQ vessel arrivals team,” Kris said.

“The Brisbane-based arrivals team has been conducting multiple vessel sweeps per day, contacting vessels before they reach the border through the Automatic Identification System (AIS). If the arrivals team couldn't contact a vessel, an MSQ border patrol officer would intercept it on the water.

“Not all vessels are fitted with an AIS, so it was even more important to have patrol officers on the water to check for vessels trying to slip through.”

Pulling together a team of officers on a tight timeframe was not without its challenges. The MSQ Gold Coast office played host to the patrol officers who were trained in the new policies and procedures. Our patrol officers worked in shifts from 6:00am–2:00pm, 10:00am–7:00pm and 9:00pm–6:00am for seven days, and if you're from the Gold Coast, (and your memory serves you well) you'll know it was a particularly cold, wet and windy week.

It would take more than gloomy weather to stop our patrol officers, who intercepted 67 boats during the week of 24/7 patrols, checking for valid Queensland Border Declaration Passes or valid exemptions under Border Restrictions Direction (No.11).

Once the last-minute rush over the border ended, so too did the 24/7 roster. However, MSQ remains out on the water monitoring the situation, assisted by intelligence it receives around the clock. As at Tuesday 1 September, MSQ had intercepted 169 boats since Monday 3 August, and issued a fine under the Public Health Act 2005 to the master of a vessel that, when boarded, could not produce the required Queensland Border Declaration Pass. The master and crew were ordered to either return to New South Wales waters or go into quarantine. They chose the latter. 

“The border patrols have been a great success and have even been rolled out to the regions, with Marine Officers maintaining close contact with marinas to ensure they are notified of any vessels of interest, working with volunteer marine rescue groups, state boat harbours, coast guards, Queensland Water Police, Queensland Boating and Fisheries Patrol and any other stakeholders with 'intel' on vessels of interest,” Kris said.

– MSQ Media