South Korea Fishes in Illegal Waters

In the past year alone, 10 large-scale trawlers, nine of them flying the South Korean flag, have been identified breaking national and international fishing laws in the waters of Sierra Leone. The 10th was from China.

With domestic demand for sole and other seafood depleting local stocks of those species in Asia, steady demand is driving East Asian vessels to West Africa, particularly to the Atlantic waters off of Sierra Leone. Pushed by hungry and increasingly wealthy consumers at home, Asian vessels are pulled by generous stocks and weak or corrupt enforcement of regulations.

According to the commercial fishery industry publication World Fishery and Aquaculture, South Korea’s deep sea fishing fleet pulled in as much as 639 million tonnes of fish, primarily Alaskan Pollack and tuna, operating mainly in the North and South Pacific as well as going for squid near the Falklands islands in the western Atlantic. However, the South Koreans have increasingly gone farther afield as these waters are depleted.

The South Koreans are hardly alone. Global commercial fishing is taking in 124 million tonnes of fish annually, according to a study of the oceans by the Food and Agriculture Organization. The FAO reports that more than 70 percent of the world’s fisheries are either ‘fully exploited’, ‘over-exploited’ or ‘significantly depleted.’

The West African waters, however, are still teaming with snapper, garoupa, sardines, mackerel and shrimp. The Asian trawlers see these poorly defended waters as fair game. It is estimated that the impoverished West African states face lose up to US$1.5 billion worth of fish each year to vessels fishing in protected zones or without proper equipment or licenses, according to a recent Reuters report.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea gives each country exclusive fishing rights within 200 miles of shore while giving all states equal rights to high-seas fishing. But widespread corruption and a continuing lack of resources for enforcement mean foreign trawlers often venture into areas near the coast that are reserved exclusively for artisanal fishermen, allowing them to drag off tons of catch and putting at risk the livelihoods of millions of local people, often damaging the equipment of local artisanal fishermen, according to the Reuters report.

“At present, most countries don’t take much of an interest in how vessels operate in faraway waters, said Andy Hickman of the UK-based Environmental Justice Foundation, which works to document illegal fishing in the West African region. “That is particularly the case with distant water fleets. They only rarely come to port, so they’re difficult to track and regulate. The states that are tasked with regulating them aren’t fulfilling their responsibilities.”

The Asian trawlers also find an abundant supply of cheap local labor available to work on the boats. Sierra Leone suffered through a brutal civil war between 1991 and 2002 that took the lives of an estimated 75,000 people and resulted in the mutilation of thousands more. It is still recovering from that conflict and working to build a functioning society. It is ranked 180th of 187 on the Human Development Index.

“It's a relatively unregulated fishery, which makes it easier for unscrupulous vessels,” said Hickman, whose NGO is working for the implementation of two measures it hopes will lead to more sustainable practices by industrial fishing vessels in West Africa and elsewhere. The first is to establish a reliable global registry for fishing vessels, which would undermine the anonymity many vessels are able to operate with.

“Vessels can change names and identification systems, which makes it difficult to track their activities. We want a marker that stays with fishing vessels throughout their entire life,” Hickman told Asia Sentinel in a phone interview from London.

The second is better flag state responsibility. Every vessel in international waters is associated with the country whose flag flies on its mast. Activists would like to see those countries do more to regulate the behavior of those vessels.

But the fact is that countries all over the world operate under double standards when it comes to fishing, vigorously protecting their own waters while doing little to regulate ships flying their flag internationally.

South Korea provides an exceptionally vivid illustration of this double standard. The South Korean coast guard regularly clashes with Chinese vessels in the waters off its western coast. The Chinese boats often stray into South Korea's exclusive economic zone, which is believed to be less polluted than Chinese waters and to be home to more sea life.

Chinese fishermen and the South Korean coast guard had bloody disputes as recently as early May, when four Korean officials were injured in a fight off the west coast of South Korea.

In December 2011, a South Korean coast guardsman was fatally stabbed in another incident. In April, the Chinese captain of that boat was sentenced to 30 years in a South Korean prison for the stabbing. Prosecutors had sought the death penalty. Popular opinion was supportive of an exceptionally harsh sentence for the accused. The severe sentence was apparently intended as a deterrent to Chinese vessels. (Apparently it didn't work.)

The Sierra Leonean government has turned to assessing hefty fines to delinquent vessels. Minister of Fisheries and Marine Resources in March reported having collected $158,000 in fines so far in 2012. But not all fines are collected successfully: this year, three vessels fled Sierra Leone without paying fines incurred for illegal fishing. The passports of the ships’ crewmembers are apparently still being held by authorities in Sierra Leone.

This is going on in coincidence with Yeosu Expo 2012, which opened week with the theme of “Sustainable Oceans and Coast.” South Korea loves using international events to trumpet its accomplishments and revel in international attention. Improving strategies to regulate vessels in distant waters near poor countries doesn't appear to be on the event's agenda.