TCS Daily

Fish and Foul in Northeast Asia

By Andy Jackson - July 13, 2005 12:00 AM

Conflicts in East Asia over islands with potential offshore oil and gas deposits (the Spratlys and Senkaku immediately come to mind) are widely reported; however, another offshore resource is also causing conflicts in this part of the world: seafood.

Japanese, Koreans and coastal Chinese all rely on the sea to provide a large part of their diets and each has large fleets of fishing ships working to meet demand. Each nation also jealously guards fishing rights in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The problem is that fishermen in the region are much less strict in staying within the limits of their nations respective EEZs.


Two recent incidents highlight the potential for conflict over EEZs and fishing. On June 1st the South Korean fishing boat Shinpung-ho, which had been previously caught illegally fishing in Japanese waters, was spotted about five kilometers inside Japans EEZ and stopped after a short chase. While three guardsmen were boarding the ship, one fell into the sea. Taking advantage of the resulting confusion, the captain of the Shinpung-ho, escaped into the Korean EEZ with two Japanese guardsmen still on board and called for assistance from the Korean coast guard. From there the situation degenerated to the point where eventually six Korean and seven Japanese ships engaged in a tug-of-war over the errant vessel for nearly 30 hours. It took intervention by the Korean and Japanese governments to resolve the matter.


Since then, Japanese officials have expressed concerns over what they see as South Korean over fishing in jointly controlled waters in the Sea of Japan (which Koreans refer to as the East Sea).


While the June 1st episode was no-doubt a tense situation, an event a week earlier nearly ended in tragedy. South Korean coastguardsmen attempted to seize two Chinese boats illegally fishing in Koreas EEZ. The 18-man crew of one boat attacked the six guardsmen with metal pipes. Sergeant Choe Ik-su was stuck in the face and dumped overboard. Three other guardsmen were also injured. The vessels escaped as coastguard ships redirected their efforts to rescuing Choe. Three suspicious Chinese boats were later seized in the area.


While these skirmishes pale in comparison with the sometimes deadly conflicts between the Koreas over blue crab fishing grounds in the Yellow Sea (known as the West Sea in Korea), future incidents could cause deterioration in relations between nations in the region.


One way to limit conflicts over fishing grounds is for nations to meet their seafood needs through aquaculture. China already produces over half of the fish it consumes from fish farms and is projected to produce two-thirds through aquaculture by 2020. Other nations in the region have also developed their fish farming capacity. However, developing aquaculture does not by itself solve the problem of conflicts over fishing if for no other reason than the fact that one of the primary sources of fishmeal is captured fish.


There have already been many fishing agreements in the region, so clearly bi-lateral agreements arent the answer. Korea signed a fisheries accord with Japan in 1999 that established exclusive and jointly exploited zones in the seas between the two nations. Korea inked a similar deal with China in 2000. There is no shortage of agreements.


The problem lies in a lack of cooperation on enforcing territorial restrictions. That has left a gap in maritime enforcement that some fishermen exploit by working the edges of the EEZs and scooting back over the line when they spot maritime police ships.


In the end there is no substitute for greater cooperation between the Koreas, Japan and China on enforcement. Joint patrols in jointly fished zones and near the edges of EEZs would be a good start. Korea can also help by investigating those on Japans list of ships that violated its EEZ.


At midnight on July 1, the joint fishing zone agreement between China and the Republic of Korea expired. With its expiration, 28,900 square kilometers of formerly jointly fished waters fell into Koreas EEZ. The Korean government expects that Chinese fishermen who had been working those waters will not abandon them immediately and it has beefed up patrols in the area to counter the problem.


Considering the difficulties nations in the region have had in protecting their EEZs, the Korean maritime police will have their work cut out for them in this new task.


Andy Jackson is an instructor at Ansan College in Ansan, Korea.


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