South Korea: New start-up brings hope to aging fishing industry

A new start to an old industry.

A student’s start-up is helping the local fishing community to earn more income.  

By Sunny Um, South Korea correspondent, Maritime Fairtrade

The fishing industry is one of the fastest aging industries in South Korea.  Statistics Korea reported last December that four out of ten workers in the industry are more than 65 years old. The report added that the number of fishing industry workers is also decreasing fast. Last year, the total number of workers in the industry was approximately 114,000, which has dropped by 14,000 compared to 2015.

With the average age of those in the labor force increasing, some parts of the industry sometimes are hesitant in adopting new technologies, especially in selling their catches. Many fishermen stick to conventional sales methods, for example, selling their products via traders and paying them 10 to 20 percent of the market price.

Considering that many shoppers, especially the tech-savvy younger generations, are nowadays occupied with visiting online shopping malls rather than going down to fish markets, and this trend is exacerbated with the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry’s old-fashioned selling strategy may not be the best way to maximize the profit of the fishermen.

A big dream to help local fishermen

And this is how Scott Choi, a doctoral student studying at the Korea Maritime and Ocean University, is inspired to come up with an idea to create Fisher One, an online fish products marketplace to boost the local fishing community’s profit.  Unlike other brokers, Fisher One does not take any fee from the local fishermen. They offer the platform, product packaging and design and advertising services for free.

“The profit that traders earn from the fish products is too much compared to what fishers earn,” Choi told Maritime Fairtrade in a phone interview.

“For example, let’s say a locally produced bag of seaweed costs 9,000 won (US$ 8.06) at the production stage. Consumers would have to buy at 20,000 won or at even higher prices due to commissions added by the traders. In the end, the fishers may be earning less than the traders.”

“It took a year for us to launch this marketplace,” Choi said. “I visited many fishing villages and tried to persuade fishers that this is a good thing for them but most of them were initially skeptical. Now, the registered sellers thank us for successfully introducing their products to the online consumers.”

Officially opened in April, the online marketplace already has more than a thousand consumers and around 20 sellers registered. There are currently about 100 products available at Fisher One, and the company aims to have 200 products by the end of this year.  Choil wants to convince more fishermen to join the online marketplace. 

Fisher One has received great feedback from many customers too.  Choi reiterated having a good reputation is important for the branding of the marketplace as he wants it to be known for a place where buyers can get fresh local seafood.  

“When it comes to buying fish products online, it is not easy for the customers to check which product is the best, as most products show the package’s design rather than the content,” Choi reiterated.

“Customers cannot confirm whether the products they wish to buy are locally produced, high-quality and fresh. But as our products are 100 percent local and shipped directly from the villages, consumers can trust what we offer.”

A new career path for students

With its innovation and use of technology, Fisher One is also opening up new job opportunities for young graduates who are digital natives and are passionate about helping the local fishing community, Choi says.

For example, students from the Korea Maritime and Ocean University, where Choi currently studies, asked to work with him. Choi hired some of his fellow schoolmates to write website content, advertising copy, and for designing works.

“Our school is well-known for job placements in the shipping industry, rather than fisheries,” Choi explained.  “Some students think that the fishing industry is not a suitable career because they did not study or specialize in that field. But I think people should not place a limit to what they can do. Students can perhaps start a fishery-related business or find a job in the fishing industry, and that’s okay.”

Conquering foreign markets

Choi’s company has garnered much media attention recently after winning first place in the prep entrepreneur program held by the Creative Economy Innovation Center in South Jeolla Province, South Korea, in April. 

“We could not have gone this far and achieve this much without our co-founder Jessica Lee, who helped us with patience, and other colleagues who have been here from the start,” Choi said.

(Right) Scott Choi, CEO of Fisher One, (Middle) Jessica Lee, Co-Founder, and Jang Gyeong-min, a researcher.

Choi’s vision is for Fisher One to become a hub of all fishing villages in South Korea and then eventually to export local products to overseas markets.

“My dream is for Fisher One to represent all the South Korean fishing villages and to showcase our local seafood products to the whole world,” he said. “Once we establish a big network that connects all fishing villages together, we will move to exporting seafood products to other countries, starting with the Korean markets in the United States and Canada.”

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Sunny Um

Sunny Um

Sunny, our South Korea correspondent working out of Seoul, is a journalist with a passion for community journalism and an interest in economics and politics.

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