By Ian Urbina, a former investigative reporter for the New York Times, is the director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization based in Washington, D.C., that focuses on reporting about environmental and human rights crimes at sea



As fishing stocks shrink, competition grows and offshore clashes between fishing nations become more common. Seafood-loving countries like Japan and South Korea are being edged out by growing fleets from Taiwan, Vietnam and, most of all, China.

With a population of more than1.38 billion, China is the world’s biggest consumer of seafood and its global catches have grown by over 20% in the past five years. Many of the fishing stocks closest to China’s shores have collapsed from overfishing and industrialisation, which is why the Chinese government heavily subsidises its fishermen who sail the world in search of new grounds.

Fishing fleets from China accounted for 50 to 70% of the squid caught on the high seas in recent years, according to an estimate by the Chinese government. Often these boats are fishing illegally in other countries’ national waters, according to analysis by C4ADS, a marine research firm.

The Sea of Japan includes disputed patches of water where the surrounding countries – Russia, Japan and the two Koreas – do not recognise each other’s sea borders. The incursion of the Chinese in this region has only intensified local tensions.

Chinese fishing boats are famously aggressive, often armed and known for ramming competitors or foreign patrol vessels. Chinese media often depict the country’s maritime clashes with other nearby Asian nations as an extension of ancient China’s Three Kingdoms, which fought a fierce three-way battle for supremacy.

Tensions between Seoul and Beijing increased in 2016 after a Chinese vessel, illegally fishing in South Korean waters, sank a South Korean Coast Guard cutter. The cutter was in South Korean waters and was trying to stop a Chinese fishing ship that allegedly had been caught illegally fishing when another Chinese ship rear-ended the marine officers.

Similarly, while reporting at sea for this investigation, reporters for this article filmed 10 of these illegal Chinese fishing ships crossing into North Korean waters.

However, the reporting team was forced to divert its course to avoid a dangerous collision after one of the Chinese fishing captains suddenly swerved towards the team’s boat, coming within 10 metres, likely intending to ward off the boat. Spotted at night and roughly 100 miles from shore, the Chinese squid ships would not respond to radio calls and were travelling with their transponders off.

A yearly migratory species, the so-called Pacific Flying Squid spawn in waters near the southeastern port city of Busan or off South Korea’s southernmost island of Jeju. They swim north in the spring before returning south to their birthplace between July and September.

In 2017 and 2018, the illegal Chinese boats, which are typically about 10 times larger than North Korean boats, caught as much of the squid as Japan and South Korea combined – an estimated 160,000 tons, worth more than $440 million annually.

Marine researchers fear a full collapse of this squid colony, which has declined by 63% and 78% in South Korean and Japanese waters respectively since 2003. The Chinese fleet is a primary culprit of this precipitous drop because in targeting North Korean waters, these industrial boats are catching the squid before they grow big enough to procreate, said Jaeyoon Park, the scientist from Global Fishing Watch.

Since Chinese authorities do not make their fishing licences public, Global Fishing Watch said that there is no way to verify that all of the ships entering North Korean waters were authorised by the Chinese government. However, the organisation corroborated that the vessels were of Chinese origin through various other sources of information.

Among these corroborating sources were transponder and other types of radio transmissions; records from South Korean Coast Guard officials who routinely board and inspect fishing ships on their way into North Korean waters; data showing the ships departed from Chinese ports or waters that are strictly limited to Chinese vessels; records indicating the use of distinctly Chinese gear type or ship design; and satellite information showing that the ships previously fished in Chinese waters that are closely policed and forbidden to foreign ships.

All of the roughly two dozen fishing ships that the reporting team witnessed heading into North Korean waters were flying Chinese flags.

“When they come, they take over,” said Kim Byong-su, the mayor of Ulleung island, located in the East Sea about 75 miles east of the Korean Peninsula. A tiny spit of land belonging to South Korea, Ulleung is the closest port to the North Korean fishing grounds.

Kim said that the Chinese squid boats have decimated the island’s two primary sources of income, tourism and fishing. In the Jeodong market near the pier, rows of squid are draped across lines like folded laundry as they sun-dry into fish jerky. Squid sellers estimated that the per-pound cost of squid is roughly three times what it was less than five years ago.

Most of the island’s men older than 40 are squid fishermen but one-third of them are now unemployed because of the decline in stock, the mayor said.

That a creature so central to the local culture could disappear has shaken this community, whose identity has been defined by squid fishing for centuries. Historically, most of the Ulleung’s restaurants served fried, dried or raw squid as a free appetiser, but these dishes are now absent from many menus.

Local animosity towards the Chinese fleet has been made only worse, the mayor said, because a few times a year, when bad weather strikes, an armada of more than 200 Chinese squid boats arrives simultaneously to the Ulleung’s port to ride out the storm.

The mayor said he is powerless to tell them to leave. They dump oil, throw litter, run loud smoky generators all night and when leaving drag their anchors, destroying the island’s freshwater pipes, he said.

“The outside world needs to know what’s happening here,” Kim said.