Better-organised, they overwhelm undermanned Korean coastguard
DAECHEONG (South Korea) – Fishermen in South Korea who work the flashpoint maritime border with the North tend to be a resilient bunch, but a larger, more powerful neighbour is making them lose sleep.
“North Korea is nothing compared to the Chinese fishing ships,” says Mr Choi Won Jin, who has fished the crab-rich waters around his home on Daecheong for decades.
Daecheong is one of five “frontline” islands whose proximity to the disputed border with North Korea means they are manned by thousands of South Korean soldiers and bristling with artillery units and bomb shelters.
But all that weaponry has failed to guard against what Mr Choi sees as the biggest threat to the livelihood of the fishing communities – the “invasion” of Chinese trawlers.
Official estimates show more than 1,000 Chinese fishing ships illegally accessed exclusive South Korean waters around Daecheong last year, with only four coastguard ships on hand to pose a deterrent.
The numbers have been growing every year as China’s increasing affluence and appetite for seafood pushes more fishermen to venture beyond its overfished waters.
Smaller, wooden Chinese ships sneaking into South Korean waters were once tolerated in an area where the top priority has always been guarding against potential incursions from the North.
But in recent years, the small boats have given way to larger steel trawlers which engage in bottom trawling – dragging a large, weighted net across the sea floor – and sweep up “everything in their path”, says Mr Choi.
“By the time they are gone, we have nothing left. It’s all gone, including our fishing pots.”
Around 2,200 Chinese vessels have been stopped and fined by South Korea for illegal fishing in the past four years, and the number of fishermen arrested soared from two in 2010 to 66 in 2013.
There were only five arrests last year, but coastguard officials say that was largely because all resources were diverted to the lengthy rescue and recovery operation that followed the Sewol ferry disaster.
Chinese captains are well-organised, says coastguard commando Lee Kyung Hak, and often chain their ships together “like a big floating city” in the event of a confrontation. Crew members often arm themselves with steel pipes and knives, and have been known to throw burning gas canisters at officers trying to board their ships.
A recent study estimated that 675,000 tonnes of fishery products – valued at 1.3 trillion won (S$1.6 billion) – were illegally taken by China from South Korean waters in 2012.
“If anything, the situation has worsened,” says Mr Lee Kwang Nam, head of the Fisheries Policy Institute in Seoul who authored the 2014 study. He says the undermanned coastguard only manages to seize or arrest less than 1 per cent of Chinese poachers.
Under growing domestic pressure to crack down harder on the Chinese fishing vessels, Seoul has signalled a tougher line with the start of this year’s fishing season last month.
Mr Yun Byoung Doo, chief of the Incheon coastguard which guards the Yellow Sea border islands, says the coastguard would use firearms, including handguns and onboard cannon more actively “if necessary”.
China’s foreign ministry did not directly comment on South Korea’s toughened stance against illegal fishing, but urged it to “enforce the law in a reasonable way, and ensure the safety and lawful rights and interests” of Chinese fishermen.
South Korean fishermen have not been blameless themselves when it comes to illegal fishing in waters as far away as the seas off West Africa.
But the government has moved to eradicate the practice and South Korea was taken off the US list of countries engaged in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in February, and from the EU list last month.