In what has come across as the largest known case of illegal fishing by a single distant-water fleet, Chinese vessels are displacing local boats in North Korean waters and forcing fishermen to risk rough seas for distant shore in unmarked 'ghost ships' in search of livelihood.
In a recent report published in Science Advances, environmental researchers identified over 900 illegal Chinese fishing vessels in 2017, and over 700 in 2018, swarming the region for an estimate of more than 160,000 metric tonnes of squid worth $440 million.
The report mentions South Korean Coast Guard observing hundreds of fishing vessels venturing into North Korean waters, which on random inspections where found to be of Chinese origin. Moreover, the report cites UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to state the illegal fishing over the two-year period (since September 2017) "would constitute a violation of public international law".
The illegal-unreported-unregulated (IUU) fishing in the waters between North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and Russia have forced local fishermen to catch squid illegally along the Russian coast in 'ghost ships' -- small-scale wooden boats that do not appear in public monitoring systems.
As per the report, between 2014 and 2018, over 500 North Korean fishing boats washed ashore on Japanese coasts, some carrying decomposed corpses of the crew. Many fishing villages on the eastern coast of North Korea were reported to have now been coined 'widows’ villages'.
Chinese 'dark fleets' are not only a threat to small-scale local fishermen but also a threat to food security in these geopolitically tense poorly observed waters. The researchers used satellite technologies combined with local expertise to monitor illegal fishing activities in the region and found that Chinese catch corresponding to approximately 101,300 metric tons of squid worth $275 million in 2017 and 62,800 metric tons of squid worth $171 million in 2018.
As per the report, squid is South Korea’s top seafood by production value, one of the top 5 seafood consumed in Japan, and until recent 2017 sanctions, it was the third-largest North Korean export. The illegal Chinese shipping poses a threat to seafood stock in the region, with catches in South Korea and Japan reportedly falling by about 80% as compared to 2003 records.