China’s illegal fishing causes hardship for South Korea

Catches of squid, in particular, one of the marine resources that have the highest market value and is a favorite staple food, fell by a large amount since 2004.

A recent study reveals that China’s illegal fishing is destroying the sustainability of marine resources in North Korean waters.  As the movement of fishes and other sea creatures is not bound by maritime borders between countries, overfishing in the North also negatively impacts the marine ecosystem and livelihood of the local fishing community in the South.  A South Korean official says that the government will continue its measures against illegal fishing fleets from China.  By Sunny Um, South Korea correspondent, Maritime Fairtrade

Last July, a team of researchers found that hundreds of unauthorized and unreported Chinese boats have fished in North Korean waters in 2017 and 2018. The study, conducted by a Global Fishing Watch data scientist Jaeyoon Park and other maritime experts, stated that this may be the “largest known case of illegal fishing perpetrated by a single distant-water fleet.”

To fish in Korean waters, both South and North Korean, fishing vessels should gain approval from the respective government. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea also states that coastal countries have sovereign rights over marine resources in their waters.

However, some Chinese vessels fishing in Korean waters do not carry documents of permission or approval. They are often not even registered or licensed, which seems to be an attempt to mask their identities.

An official from the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries of South Korea says that China’s illegal fishing in Korean waters threatens the sustainability of South Korean marine resources. He also says the government will continue its efforts to curb such illicit activities.

Wiping squid off the menu in South Korea

Chinese fleets reportedly started to fish in North Korean waters since 2004 and the number of catches by South Korean fishermen has dropped drastically since then. This is because much marine resources in South Korean waters come down from the north. Also, complaints of Chinese vessels illegally fishing in South Korean waters have been filed with the South Korean government every year.

Catches of squid, in particular, one of the marine resources that have the highest market value and is a favorite staple food, fell by a large amount since 2004.  The data from Statistics Korea showed that catches of squid by South Korean fishermen dropped from 233,000 metric tons in 2003 to 190,000 metric tons in 2004.

As of 2019, the amount of squid catches plummeted to 50,000 metric tons, which is the lowest record in 20 years. The study done by Park estimated that Chinese illegal fishing vessels in North Korean waters would have caught about 164,000 metric tons of squid from 2017 to 2018.

The reduction in squid catches caused a sharp increase in the price, too. The average price of squid was 1,599 won (US$1.47) per kilogram in 2003. This has climbed sharply to more than double of that in 2016 and finally reached 7,418won (US$6.85) last year.

Last August, China imposed a three-months ban on Chinese fleets fishing in distant waters, after heightened criticism from many countries on illegal fishing, including the United States. However, North Korean waters are not included in the ban.

Stronger countermeasures needed

Some lawmakers demanded the South Korean government to introduce stronger measures to expel Chinese boats operating illegally in sovereign waters.  Last October, Rep Hong Moon-pyo of the main opposition People Power Party requested the government to arrest or impose fines on these boats, but also saying that the government should “pay attention to potential retaliation from China.”

An official from the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries told Maritime Fairtrade that the South Korean government is aware of the severity of the problem.

“South Korea government decides on which Chinese fishing vessels to approve based on the Korean-Chinese Fisheries Agreement,” the official, who wished to stay anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue at hand, said. “But unapproved Chinese boats often enter Korean waters.”

Moreover, the official said that even if the boats are approved, there are instances of some who underreported theircatches, which is clearly against the agreement. “When we approve fishing vessels, we also set a cap on the amount of catches,” he said. “Some Chinese vessels lie about the amount or fish in unauthorized areas to try to catch a bigger quantity.”

To stop Chinese boats operating illegally, the government is currently sending out Korean Coast Guard and Sea Fisheries Management Services to regularly patrol the East and West Sea. These agencies, which detect and stop illegal fishing operations, are in the midst of upgrading their technical capability and boats to better enforce their sovereign rights.

“Our government is asking the Chinese government every year for enhanced efforts to stop illegal fishing in Korean waters,” said the official. “But even the Chinese government doesn’t seem to have control over its unauthorized vessels because the number is simply too big.”

Image credit: TamasV /

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