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China’s invisible fishing fleet revealed

Chinese pair trawlers and lighting boats anchored in a harbour at Ulleung Island

IUU Fishing

Kathy Mansfield welcomes Ian Urbina’s work with Global Fishing Watch to highlight the damage being done to squid stocks in waters off Korea and Japan

The enormity of Chinese illegal fishing is being exposed by Ian Urbina, winner of the Maritime Foundation’s 2016 Desmond Wettern Journalism Award. Moving on from his ground-breaking book, The Outlaw Ocean, and in partnership with Global Fishing Watch, he has now exposed the world’s largest fleet of illegal fishing boats poaching in territorial waters, and it is a story that he wants everyone to know about. Having worked for many years as an investigative journalist for the New York Times, he is aware that important stories are usually revealed to only one segment of the media in only one country and one language, and are not always picked up more widely. In a creative attempt to change this traditional system, he is working in different media forms, countries and languages, not just in print but also in TV, video and radio. He is using top broadcasting outlets around the world, working, for example, with NBC in the US, Der Spiegel in Germany, CBC in Canada, NRC in the Netherlands, Japan Times, and China News Centre in Taiwan, as well as in other countries and in at least ten different languages.

Ian is now the director of the Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organisation based in Washington, DC, which focuses on reporting about environmental and human rights crimes at sea. The journalism is top-notch, the broadcast areas are wide with large audiences, and new audiences are being reached; it is a model for others to emulate. It is expected that 15 million people will get to see or read his story. Illegal fishing has a huge economic, community and environmental effect, but is too often under the radar as other news stories take priority.

China’s massive fleet

Together with other vessels of the Chinese fishing fleet in the harbour at Ulleung Island, a ship fitted with a big gantry of lights for attracting squid to the surface
Together with other vessels of the Chinese fishing fleet in the harbour at Ulleung Island, a ship fitted with a big gantry of lights for attracting squid to the surface. Photo: Ulleung-gun County Office

Two-thirds of the world’s commercial fish stocks are being overfished. The People’s Republic of China, with just under 20 per cent of the world’s population, accounts for almost 38 per cent of its distant water fishing effort, while Taiwan – with only 0.31 of global population – accounts for another 21 per cent of the global total (by contrast, Japan, South Korea and Spain each account for about 10 percent, while the USA and France – both in the top 10 – respectively represent only around 3 and 2 per cent). A study by Global Fishing Watch found more than 900 vessels of Chinese origin in 2017, and 700 in 2018, likely violated UN sanctions by fishing in North Korean waters. Following North Korea’s testing of ballistic missiles, the UN Security Council adopted resolutions in 2017 to sanction the country, and some of these prohibit foreign fishing. Chinese vessels have been turning off their transponders so that their boats are not visible to local authorities. However, these larger vessels often destructively pair-trawl at night. Global Fishing Watch has been able to detect, by synthesising data from multiple satellite sensors, the extremely bright lights on special vessels the fleets use to lure the squid.

Ghost ships in the Sea of Japan

Even with this background, it has been shocking for Ian, working in conjunction with NBC News and the technological abilities of Global Fishing Watch, to discover the largest illegal fishing fleet ever documented working in the Sea of Japan, bordered by Japan, Russia, South Korea and North Korea. The project took over a year and a half of dangerous investigative reporting by Ian and his team.

It answers a particularly grim question – why over 500 small fishing boats from North Korea have washed ashore in Japan over the last five years (about 165 of these in 2019), often containing the emaciated, dehydrated bodies of their crews. Despite various conspiracy theories, it appears that these were impoverished North Korean fishermen, often with few or no seamanship skills, who were being pressured to catch ever larger numbers of squid – the protein-rich calamari that is popular worldwide. Forced out of their local waters by the numbers of Chinese vessels, these old wooden boats, ‘ghost ships’, have been venturing further and further offshore, often without sufficient provisions, equipment or fuel, and have eventually been driven by winds, currents and storms to the shores of Japan. Back in North Korea, according to local sources, there are coastal ‘widows’ villages where these men originated. And in the Sea of Japan squid stocks have plummeted by 80 per cent.

Flaws in the laws

The enormous depletion of squid stocks has ruined the economy of fishing villages in South Korea and on the west coast of Japan, and also affected other countries such as Malaysia and the Philippines around the South China Sea, whose Spratly Islands China illegally treats as its territory. China now controls the global squid market, selling much to the EU and US – and even to the UK. China is now the primary exporter of seafood by tonnage.

As Ian Urbina points out, ‘The recent discovery highlights the enormity of shortcomings in terms of international law and its enforcement across the world’s oceans. The myriad loopholes and grey areas in legal structures such as the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea coupled with the lack of enforcement in the case of squid fishing, and a lack of transparency in the international supply chain, leave consumers largely in the dark about the hidden costs of their food.’

Clearly the world needs to know, and take action.

Kathy Mansfield is a journalist and photographer. For further information on the Outlaw Ocean project, visit: