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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Stopping the Poachers

Kim Chan-ju

Jun. 24, 2016

South Korea is mobilizing its Coast Guard and navy to catch crab poachers from China who are damaging the livelihood of local fishermen.

Illegal fishing by Chinese trawlers is a serious problem in the Yellow Sea, off the west coast of South Korea.

Blue crabs are one of the country's favorite seasonal delicacies. They're also a prime target for poachers.

South Korean fishermen have been finding that their catches are down, even in the peak of the season.

The Yellow Sea beside the Korean Peninsula has abundant fish stocks and, recently, patrol ships as well. South Korea's Coast Guard is stepping up their enforcement against illegal Chinese fishing boats.

Yeonpyeong Island lies close to North Korea and China. The island's economy depends largely on fishing -- especially the blue crabs found in the surrounding waters.

Local fishermen are out in the ocean, about 10 kilometers away from Yeonpyeong Island for blue crabs that are in season.

Lim Dong-hwan has specialized in catching the crabs for the past decade. Lim used to land up to 50 boxes of blue crabs a day in the peak season worth $17,000. But things have changed.

"We're deep in the red this year. We can't even cover maintenance or wages," Lim says.

His catch is down to a tenth of what it was. It's the same situation for the other boats. Lim says the current situation is the worst he can remember. He blames illegal Chinese fishing for the poor catch.

Chinese boats even intrude into South Korea's territorial waters. Many operate near the sea border between the two Koreas.

The area is believed to be a good fishing ground due to less exploitation. And the Chinese boats can avoid detection from the South after escaping into the North.

The angry fishermen have spoken up and changed their government's attitude. South Korean military patrolled the neutral waters for the first time. They believe the poachers use banned trawling nets, and scoop up marine life from the seabed, including undersized fish.

Many of the restaurants that specialize in blue crab have shut down or changed their menus.

"We haven’t been able to serve blue crabs at all. Last year, they cost $110 for 5 kilograms. Now it’s double that," says one restaurant owner.

South Korean fishermen have called on their mayor to take concrete steps to address the problem. They say a joint fishing zone should be set up around the area.

One expert says Chinese poachers are operating near the Korean Peninsula because overfishing has wiped out fish stocks off the coast of China.

"Government officials from South Korea and China should cooperate to ensure the Chinese fishermen have a stable income. They have to make fishermen not rely on seasonal fishing. Both governments must make efforts to create a win-win relationship to prevent poachers from destroying future resources," says Kim Heung-kyu, China Policy Institute director at Ajou University.

But for now, there seems to be no magic solution that can resolve the problem of illegal fishing in South Korean waters.

NHK World's Kim Chan-ju joined anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio from Seoul.

Beppu: So we understand that South Korea's authorities and fishermen are struggling to deal with these illegal boats. But I wonder what is the South Korean government doing?

Kim: The government has been repeatedly protesting against China. In fact, illegal fishing by Chinese boats is a decade-long issue, but China hasn't made any serious attempts to deal with the problem. Last week, the South Korean Foreign Ministry said it was demanding that China take strong measures to stop illegal fishing. China's foreign ministry reportedly said they'd enforce a crackdown as well as educate their fishermen. But the industry on China's Yellow Sea coast is said to support about 30 million people. So it seems difficult for China's central government to control.

Shibuya: So in the report we saw fishermen from Yeonpyeong Island demanding a joint fishing zone to counter the Chinese boats. Is that a possibility?

Kim: I think it will be difficult for the time being for the 2 Koreas to coordinate their policies. As I mentioned in the report, South Korea's military went into neutral waters between the two Koreas for the first time earlier this month to stop poachers. But on Monday, North Korea called it a military provocation. There's no doubt that the Chinese poachers are also affecting North Korea. But Professor Kim Heung-kyu, the expert on South Korea-China relations I interviewed for the report, says the North wouldn't have the option to crackdown on the poachers.

"I think fishing in these waters is probably linked to the interests of North Korea's military. So the North is unlikely to cooperate with the South. The North's military, as part of a fundraising scheme, probably gives quotas to Chinese fishing boats as well as tacit approval."
Kim Heung-kyu / China Policy Director, Ajou University

The 2 Koreas have had multiple confrontations in the waters where illegal fishing is taking place. South Korea will have to be quite cautious in moving forward with its crackdowns to avoid unintended clashes.