“The massive scale of this illegal operation poses substantial implications for fisheries governance and regional geopolitics,” he said.
The multinational research team, which also included the Japan Fisheries Research and Education Agency, the Korean Maritime Institute, the University of California and Duke University, combined four different satellite technologies across two years to identify and collate the data. They found up to 900 industrial boats, originating from China, were fishing in North Korean waters.
“If they are operating with approval from either or both governments, those states are in violation of UN Security Council sanctions [on North Korea],” the report said.
“If these vessels do not have approval from both the Chinese and North Korean governments, they are fishing illegally; Chinese regulations require ministerial approval to fish in foreign waters.”
They also found North Korean “ghost boats” were searching further afield to fish as local stocks depleted, with up to 3000 smaller North Korean fishing vessels pushing into Russian and Japanese waters.
More than 3700 North Korean sailors were reportedly detained by the Russian Border Guard last year, according to state media service TASS.
The study found between 2014 and 2018, 505 North Korean boats also washed ashore on the Japanese coast, frequently involving starvation and death. Local media reported that many fishing villages on the eastern coast of North Korea have now been coined “widows’ villages”.
The scale of fishing undertaken by the Chinese fleets has flipped seafood markets in the region. The total estimated Chinese catch would correspond to approximately 101,300 tonnes of squid worth $385 million in 2017 and 62,800 tonnes worth $239 million in 2018.
“Such catch figures would approximate those of Japan and South Korea combined from all their surrounding seas,” the report found.
China has the largest distant water fishing fleet in the world at around 2500 vessels, about 38 per cent of the global fleet. Taiwan’s fleet is the second largest, with about 21.5 per cent of the global fleet. Japan, South Korea and Spain round out the top five, accounting for a further 30 per cent.
The squid was North Korea’s third-largest export until the United Nations imposed sanctions over its testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles in 2017. It has the highest production value of any seafood export in South Korea and is the fifth most consumed seafood in Japan.
The Korea Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Development Institute found Chinese squid had risen from 11 per cent of South Korea’s imports in 2014 to 50 per cent in 2019.
South Korean MP Kang Seok-ho last year said Chinese fishing boats had “engaged in indiscriminate over-fishing operations” in the North Korean waters, causing a serious exhaustion of south-bound migratory fisheries.
DailyNK, a Seoul news site with ties to North Korean defectors, reported in May that Chinese fishing vessels had taken advantage of tighter restrictions on fishing imposed by Pyongyang to stop the spread of COVID-19 by entering North Korean waters more frequently since the pandemic began.
with Sanghee Liu
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James Massola is south-east Asia correspondent based in Jakarta. He was previously chief political correspondent, based in Canberra. He has been a Walkley and Quills finalist on three occasions, won a Kennedy Award for outstanding foreign correspondent and is the author of The Great Cave Rescue.
Eryk Bagshaw is the China correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Due to travel restrictions, he is currently based in Canberra.