Chinese illegal fishing in Korean waters seems insoluble due to its connection with Chinese economic growth

On the 16th October, the Korean Coast Guard was notified about another major intrusion of Chinese fishing boats into the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of South Korea. Some thirty small Chinese fishing vessels were reported to have been fishing illegally some 55 miles from Hong Island. There was nothing unusual in this situation since such intrusions happen almost daily, and a Korean Coast Guard vessel 3009 was duly dispatched to intercept the poachers and/or drive them away.

What followed was fairly typical as well, Chinese fishermen are not known for their docility and excessive respect for the law, and when approached by the Korean Coast Guard they usually resist violently, doing what they could to prevent Korean officers from boarding their vessels. They frequently use knives, axes and crow bars to fight with Korean law enforcement. So officers of the Coast Guard usually wear protective gear and are instructed to use non-lethal weapons where need be.

However, no weapon is completely non-lethal. During this particular confrontation, at 3:10 pm one Chinese fisherman who wielded a crowbar with exceptional ferocity, was hit by a number of rubber bullets and died. Autopsy confirmed that death of a 44 years old Mr.Zhang was caused by injuries sustained by a rubber bullet to the chest.

Predictably, the Chinese foreign ministry has protested the actions of the Korean Coast Guard, and also has also demanded a thorough investigation into the incident. But the Korean public remains unsympathetic. Indeed, even though the Left and Right in Korea disagree on almost everything, in this particular case, the editorials of all major newspapers regardless of their political orientation voiced an essentially identical view: while the death is of course regrettable, our guys were doing what they were supposed to do, and they cannot be blamed for this.

This lack of critical reflection is not typical of the Korean media which is usually has a very sympathetic attitude to the supposed victims of heavy-handed law enforcement. The memory of a few recent incidents involving Korean officers and Chinese fisherman has had an effect though. As late as last December, a Korean officer was killed by a Chinese fisherman during a violent confrontation, and another similar incident happened in 2008. The number of people merely seriously injured in such confrontations is to be counted in the dozens. There are people killed on the other side as well – apart from the recent victim, in 2009, a Chinese fisherman was killed while fighting with Korean Coast Guard.

The seizure of intruding Chinese fishing boats has become a major naval operation involving serious risks for South Korean Coast Guard. Unfortunately though, the situation is seemingly insoluble at present, since there are all too real reasons for the behavior of the Chinese fisherman. Unfortunately, many of them are fighting for their survival.
The economic growth of China over the last three decades has been nothing short of miraculous. This economic growth has brought with it prosperity to hundreds of millions of people who can now afford food which was once only available for a small number of well-connected high officials. As a result, the consumption of seafood has skyrocketed – and this growth is unlikely to suddenly stop.

At the same time, this economic growth has led to substantial environmental degradation in China’s coastal waters, and combined with overfishing has led to a depletion of China’s fish stocks. The figures are staggering and disturbing: for instance China’s prawn catch once was 40,000 tons per year, but now is just 7,000 tons.

Fishing ports on the Yellow Sea have been especially hard hit. The catch of the noodlefish, for example, decreased in this area by a factor of five or six over the last decade. In early 2012, the fishing authorities in Weihai reported that some 80 percent of boats were staying idle in ports since there are no fish to be found in the vicinity of the port and fisherman are likely to lose money by wasting their time looking in the immediate area. In many cases it only makes economic sense for a larger boat to leave port since such a boat can go far away from the coast – that is, frequently, into Korea’s waters where overfishing is much less of an issue.

So, crowbar-wielding Chinese fisherman fight for their own economic survival. For most of them, Korean waters are the only place where they can catch enough fish to make ends meet back home. If intercepted, their catch will be confiscated and they will be made to pay a large fine.

The plight of angry and violent Chinese fisherman is therefore understandable, but one should not forget the plight of Korea’s law enforcement from the Coast Guard agency. After all, all they are trying to do is protect their country’s resources – which, one might add, remain in significantly better shape, partially as a result of environmental protection measures (and, in the end of the day, due to more careful policies of Korean government and more reasonable approach of the Korean public).

The problem has been around for some time, as already mentioned. In 2002, Korean authorities seized 124 Chinese vessels, in 2005 number of seizures peaked at 584, and then it briefly went down, only to start climbing back up in recent years (in 2011 the Coast Guard seized 534 vessels).

The Korean government has demanded that the Chinese authorities get control of the situation. This though is unlikely to happen, not least because the Chinese authorities have no means by which to control the behavior of their fisherman once they have left port. At the same time, the Chinese government does not feel much pressure to protect Korea’s fishing resources – the Chinese authorities would be more worried about crowds of angry Chinese fisherman, indeed there is no reason why these men would not use their skills crow bars and knives against their own government. And. Last but not least, such measures will not go well with notoriously nationalistic Chinese public.

The accelerating depletion of fishing resources combined with growing demand for quality seafood makes the situation all but insoluble – at least in the short to medium term. Worse still, competition for fishing grounds is an important factor behind territorial disputes, which are numerous in the waters of the Asia-pacific rim.

So unfortunately, the recent death of Mr. Chang might be sign of things to come.

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