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Image 1 for Macabre “Ghost Boats”, and the world’s largest illegal fleet

North Korea news: Old and battered fishing boats, often with bodies onboard, have been washing up in Japan for years.

Image 2 for Macabre “Ghost Boats”, and the world’s largest illegal fleet

Fleets pursuing the Pacific Flying Squid.

Image 3 for Macabre “Ghost Boats”, and the world’s largest illegal fleet

Macabre “Ghost Boats”, and the world’s largest illegal fleet

31 July 20

“At first, the ominous occurrence was either attributed to natural explanations like rough weather or engine failure, or it was suspected to be a North Korean plot involving sending spies to Japan.”

Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Outlaw Ocean, award-winning investigative journalist, and previous Ocean Impact Podcast guest Ian Urbina has published a gripping new investigation that highlights the dire human impacts of resource conflict and climate-driven biodiversity loss in the Sea of Japan - a highly contested area of ocean surrounded by the Koreas, Japan and Russia.

According to the joint investigation by The Outlaw Ocean and NBC, North Korean fishing boats carrying only a deceased crew on board have reportedly been washing up on Japanese shores. 

At first, the ominous occurrence was either attributed to natural explanations like rough weather or engine failure, or it was suspected to be a North Korean plot involving sending spies to Japan. The Outlaw Ocean investigation, involving technology non-profit Global Fishing Watch along with a team of academic researchers, utilised satellite technology to uncover the breach of international law by Chinese fishing vessels in North Korean waters. 

Global Fishing Watch is responsible for using satellite technology to discover illegal fishing based on the strong lights these vessels use to draw the squid to the surface at night. Industrial boats were also found to be using ‘pair trawlers’ – two side-by-side boats together, which carry a net that catches anything that passes between them.

The Chinese vessels - of which there were nearly 800 in 2019 - appear to be in violation of U.N. sanctions that forbid foreign fishing in North Korean waters. The sanctions, imposed in 2017 in response to the country’s nuclear tests, were intended to punish North Korea by not allowing it to sell fishing rights in its waters in exchange for valuable foreign currency. It is important to note that since Chinese authorities do not make their fishing licenses 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.

As the investigation indicates, this part of the ocean, also known as the East Sea, is traditionally abundant with Pacific Flying Squid, a yearly migratory species that spawn off the coast of the port city of Busan, South Korea’s second most-populous city, as well as around the island of Jeju in the country’s utmost south. From here they journey north during the spring months before turning back south between July and September. The population is estimated to have declined by 63 percent in South Korean waters, and 78 percent in Japanese waters since 2013 - a worrying trend for marine researchers. 

Urbina describes the noticeably dwindling supply in the local market on the island of Ulleung belonging to South Korea, which is typically lined with rows of squid drying or ready to be sold fresh. According to merchants here, the price of the squid has increased threefold on what it was five years ago. The decimation of the squid population has resulted in loss of income and traditional livelihood for most, and unemployment for many.

Increased competition for what is available incentivises illegal fishing and overfishing in waters where commercial fishing regulations are lax, and on the high seas, where activity is hard to detect. These are highly contested waters in the Sea of Japan (East Sea), where it is estimated that 220,000 tons of squid is caught by industrial Chinese boats annually. An additional issue raised by scientists from Global Fishing Watch is the location where these boats are capturing their hauls: they intercept the squid in their adolescence on their journey North, before they have time to reach an age to procreate.

Jungsam Lee from the Korea Maritime Institute and one of the academics authoring the research for Global Fishing Watch postures that competition from Chinese vessels fishing in North Korean waters in violation of 2017 UN sanctions is likely playing a role in the displacement of the North Korean boats, who are venturing into dangerous Russian waters as they search for alternative stocks.

Seafood remains North Korea’s biggest export, and the country’s leader Kim Jong Un has been noted in recent speeches pushing for an increase in fishing harvests, with soldiers reportedly venturing into becoming fishermen to support this directive.

Lee also suggests that while dangerous weather conditions such as typhoons and the strong Tsushima current that runs north-eastward could explain some of the wreckage being discovered on Japan’s shores, the fisherman on these boats were likely led to taking dangerous risks far from shore, where engine failure can prove to be fatal.

Government push for fishing has also resulted in an increase in boat power for North Korean vessels: while fisherman had been used to 12-horsepower engines that limited boats capacity to travel far into the open ocean, new 38 horsepower engines tempt ill-trained men to test their luck amid the increased pressure. These boats are mostly poorly equipped for long and dangerous journeys, at only 15 to 20 feet long, and lacking toilets or beds.

Ocean Impact Organisation is supporting the work of Ian Urbina, recognising the importance of bringing critical awareness to illegal, unjust and unsustainable activities that occur on the high seas. The founders of OIO were captivated by Ian's award-winning book The Outlaw Ocean, and believe fundamentally that the hidden stories of the sea must be told if we are to achieve our vision of a just, abundant and sustainable ocean.

The phenomenon taking place in the East Sea (Sea of Japan) sits at the very nexus of powerful and untamed global forces; climate change increasingly threatens food security all over the world, fueling inter-state conflicts over access to resources in contentious territories where international law is easily circumvented. Furthermore, the impacts of these crimes carried out at the state level disproportionately impact the human rights and needs of the most vulnerable people, who are the most reliant on previously dependable sources of income and nutrition.

This journalism was produced in collaboration between The Outlaw Ocean Project and Ocean Impact Organisation.





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