One of Japan's richest fishing grounds is being frequented by vessels of unknown origin, sparking concerns of overfishing.
In the middle of the Sea of Japan is an area called Yamatotai. It's located within Japan's exclusive economic zone, the area around the country where only Japanese ships are allowed to fish. Warm and cold currents converge there, and it's famous as one of Japan's richest fishing grounds.
But local fishermen noticed a change last October. Since then, they've been spotting fishing boats of unknown origin on a daily basis. Sometimes more than 200 suspicious ships are sighted in a single day -- an unprecedented number.
The ships are suspected of fishing illegally for Japanese flying squid, which has been rising in price. So where do they come from?
We headed to the town of Noto by the Sea of Japan to meet some of the fishermen who frequently report such sightings. Noto is home to one of the country’s leading ports, which handles more than 5,000 tons of squid every year.
Takanobu Fuchu is the captain of a local ship. Since last fall, he's seen many suspicious ships in Japan’s sea zone -- too many to count, in fact. As a fisherman for over 30 years, he’s never seen anything like this before.
A radar image of the Yamatotai area recorded last December shows a number of ships of unknown origin within Japan’s sea zone.
"They raise their nets 3 or 4 times," Fuchu says. "It’s dangerous, so we stay away. This has happened many times. These are our waters, but our own Japanese ships are hesitant to be out there."
An image captured by the fishermen shows lots of squid on the deck of one old wooden ship, and letters that look like hangul, or Korean script can be seen on the stern.
A Japanese expert familiar with the Korean Peninsula took a look at the image.
"On the stern, it says ‘Chongjin.' That’s a place in North Korea, in the northeastern part," says Satoru Miyamoto, a professor at Seigakuin University.
Chongjin is known for its fishing industry. The suspicious ships appear to have traveled 500 kilometers from Chongjin to Yamatotai.
"It’s a ship for coastal waters, not for deep-sea fishing, but it’s ventured all the way out to the Sea of Japan," Miyamoto says. "It probably doesn’t have any cooling equipment -- that’s why they’re drying the squid on the deck of the ship to bring back home."
In recent years, North Korea has been trying to boost its fishing industry to make up for food shortages in the country. The military has imposed targets on fishermen, and rewards those who bring home the largest catches. Under this regime, many fishermen seem to be putting their lives on the line for a better haul.
"It’s hard to chase them away since they've risked their lives to come here. Yamatotai is one of the best fishing areas in the Sea of Japan, so it’s likely that even more fishing boats will come," Miyamoto says.
In one video recorded by a Japanese fisherman, a red Chinese flag flutters on the stern of a boat. It's much bigger than the North Korean ones. Arm-like poles that extend from the boat are part of a type of fishing net often used in China.
Bright lights are used to attract squid and fish, which are captured in one haul by the net. This method is unlike the Japanese way, in which fish are caught one by one, and it could lead to overfishing.
Chinese fishermen are not allowed to fish in the Sea of Japan. It's believed the North Koreans provided a foothold for the Chinese to fish there.
Last August, South Korea's KBS reported that Chinese fishing boats had bought unauthorized fishing rights in the Sea of Japan from North Korea, and were venturing into Japanese waters from there. According to the report, the purchase allowed 300 boats to fish off the coast of North Korea for 3 months at 2 million yen, or 17,500 dollars, per boat.
Experts in Asia’s ocean policies say recent events reflect the sharply decreasing haul in China’s own waters.
"Chinese boats overfished the East China Sea and are now coming all the way to Yamatotai and the coast of Hokkaido to poach fish and squid. I'm concerned about the future of Japan's aquatic resources," says Yoshihiko Yamada, a professor at Tokai University.
South Korea is also taking the problem seriously. The fishing port of Kuryonpo faces the Sea of Japan. It brings in more squid than any other port in South Korea, but poaching by Chinese vessels cuts into the catch.
Fishermen from Kuryonpo, such as Choi Byung Chul, say they've seen Chinese ships operating in the Sea of Japan many times.
"We could stop them if there were only one or two boats, but it's impossible when about 700 come," Choi says.
Last October, South Korea loosened rules on the use of weapons by coast guard ships.
The following month, the coast guard opened fire on Chinese fishing boats that were operating illegally.
"These weapons can effectively scare the Chinese boats. I think the measure is supported by both the government and public opinion," says researcher Lee Ki Beom.
Many Japanese fishermen are demanding that the Japanese government take similar measures. Last month, affected fishermen in Ishikawa Prefecture filed a report with the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations. In it, they indicated the gravity of the problem.
"Their method is not fair. If they continue to fish like this, all fish will be depleted, even sardines," the report said.
These concerns were also reported to the Japanese government. In late January, local politicians submitted an official request for tightened security to the government.
"We'll do our best to act on your concerns by dispatching patrol boats from the coast guard and the Fisheries Agency," says Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Yuji Yamamoto.
"If we don't take a stand, Japan’s exclusive economic zone will disappear," Fuchu says. "I hope the Japanese government will take effective measures to protect our country's resources."
NHK World's Sakurako Yoshioka joins anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.
Shibuya: What's behind the recent surge in suspected North Korean and Chinese ships?
Yoshioka: Experts say it's probably all about money. Catches of Japanese flying squid are down all over the world and that's driving up prices. In Japan, this type of squid is being traded at more than twice what it cost last season. So these suspicious ships are probably coming because of skyrocketing prices. Japanese fishermen are worried their hauls could decrease if illegal fishing continues. And this would drive prices up even further.
Beppu: How are authorities dealing with the situation in the Sea of Japan?
Yoshioka: Japan's Coast Guard and fisheries agency are cracking down on illegal fishing but they're basically doing it unarmed. Suspicious ships caught fishing inside Japan's exclusive economic zone are seized. If they aren't fishing, they just get issued a warning.
But Japan is an island country with a lot of water to patrol. There aren't enough ships and personnel to go around in the Sea of Japan. That's especially true when you compare it to somewhere like the East China Sea. But the people affected by illegal fishing are urging the government to strengthen patrols.
Please click on the URL to watch the report.http://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/newsroomtokyo/aired/20170315.html