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Environmental Offences (Commonwealth)

Environmental crime under Commonwealth law encompasses a wide range of activities that harm the environment. Because of this, environmental offences are contained in a variety of statutes and policed by a variety of agencies.

What are environmental offences?

Such activities recognised as environmental offences in Australia include:

  • contamination of air, land and water;
  • illegal disposal of hazardous and other waste;
  • illegal fishing;
  • illegal trade in plants and animals;
  • illegal logging and timber trade;
  • water theft.

Some polluting acts can produce immediate and disastrous results, while others can produce smaller impacts which over time can cause effects which are just as damaging

Illegal fishing covers an extensive range of offences, including taking protected species, taking undersized fish, exceeding a fish quota, fishing in closed zones, using unauthorised equipment, and possessing, processing, buying or selling illegally taken fish. It also includes offences committed by foreign nationals in Australian waters.

Drought, combined with the distribution of water entitlements, has created water shortages in many parts of Australia and led to water theft. This theft includes taking water for an unauthorised purpose, taking water from a non-approved source, or taking more water than is allocated.


Environmental offences are found in a variety of acts, such as the:

These laws relate to regions such as World Heritage and National Heritage places, wetlands of international importance and commonwealth marine zones, as well as to nuclear actions, and to migratory and threatened species.

Australian is also a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. This international agreement is designed to ensure international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.

Investigative agencies

There is a range of statutory bodies involved in detecting environmental offences and enforcing environmental law.

Australian Federal Police

This is the principal body responsible for investigating crimes against Commonwealth laws. It works in conjunction with other agencies in investigating environmental crime and takes a lead role where the offending is for instance,  complex or sensitive.

Department of the Agriculture, Water and the Environment

The department administers most of the acts specific to the environment. It investigates environmental matters that are of national significance, or that involve  cultural heritage and threatened species.

Australian Border Force

This agency helps to detect and investigate the illegal movement of goods such as threatened animals and plants.

Australian Fisheries Management Authority

This agency is responsible for detecting and investigating illegal fishing activity by domestic and foreign boats in the Australian Fishing Zone (up to 200 nautical miles from the coast) and Commonwealth managed fisheries.

Australian Maritime Safety Authority

The authority enforces environmental standards for ships in Commonwealth waters, generally in relation to pollution such as oil spills and waste.

Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service

The service detects, investigates and prosecutes breaches of export or quarantine laws, which protect animals, plants, humans and the environment in general.

Environmental law in action

The case of Minister for Environment Heritage and the Arts v Lamattina [2009] is an example of a commonwealth prosecution.

Between April 2004 and July 2005, South Australian farmer Lamattina cleared at least 170 eucalyptus trees on his property. The property is within the known range of the endangered South-eastern Red-tailed Black Cockatoo and part of an area mapped as nesting habitat critical to the bird’s survival. The location of nesting sites is not known but the property is within a region recognised as one of the last remaining strongholds of nesting for the cockatoos in the state and the cleared area could have supported up to 6 nesting pairs.

Lamattina admitted to contravening section 18(3) of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 in that he took an “action likely to have a significant impact on a listed threatened species included in the endangered category”. He was fined $220,000 and ordered to pay $22,500 in costs.

For advice or representation in any legal matter, please contact Armstrong Legal.

Sally Crosswell

This article was written by Sally Crosswell

Sally Crosswell has a Bachelor of Laws (Hons), a Bachelor of Communication and a Master of International and Community Development. She also completed a Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice at the College of Law. A former journalist, Sally has a keen interest in human rights law.

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