By KENTARO IWAMOTO, Nikkei staff writer
Asia’s seafood addiction is depleting the oceans and stirring diplomatic tensions. The region consumes 70% of the world’s fish, a share poised to rise as the middle class expands. Fishing operators are searching for bigger hauls, while governments are increasingly protective of marine resources. The seas are churning with competition and disputes.
TOKYO — At 3 a.m. one October night, in a dark and smelly Nagasaki port in western Japan, a 300-ton steel fishing boat from the East China Sea was unloading its catch. Not a man among the tired crew was smiling. One fisherman sighed. “The haul is so tiny,” he lamented. The boat contained eight massive tanks but six were empty. And most of the fish in the hold were not mackerel, the hoped-for prize. Instead, the fishermen were unloading smaller and less-pricey fish to market.
The East China Sea — bounded by Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan — used to be a trove for Japanese fishermen, but the situation has dramatically changed in the last decade. The life of Toshiro Nomura, 67, tells the story.
Nomura was born in a fisherman’s family in the western frontier Goto Islands of Nagasaki, long a base for profitable deep-sea fishing. His father established a fishing company in 1961 and enjoyed a plentiful business from the East China Sea throughout his lifetime. Nomura took over in 2005. In less than a decade, he shut down his operations. “There was no hope for the future,” Nomura said.
Diminishing catches and increasing equipment costs battered his ambition, but Nomura said it was the unstoppable wave of Chinese boats that made him call it quits in 2014. “We have been interrupted by Chinese boats a lot.” Nomura said it was not unusual to see a fleet of 200 to 300 boats roll into his traditional fishing waters. It was so dense that his own boats could barely sail through.
The Chinese operate legally, he admits, and they work in a zone where both countries have fishing rights. Still, Nomura said, the Chinese surge drowns prospects for traditional or smaller companies. “If we leave the East China Sea as it is, all the fish in the area will be China’s.”
The seas in Asia and the Pacific are troubled waters these days for the fishing industry. Nearly a third of the world’s fish stock is being “overfished” — harvested at biologically unsustainable levels — according to assessments by the United Nations. In part, that is because Asians are hungry, and ready to pay, for its regional bounty.
A recent report by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization found that Asians ate 99 million tons of fish in 2013 — about 70% of the 140 million tons that were available for human consumption. Fish meal production — made from smaller fish that are less valuable — is also on the rise for use in feeding livestock and to support aquafarms.
As commercial fishermen have rushed to take advantage of rising demand, governments are trying to grapple with the economic and environmental fallout of intense trawling and fishing. Among the seafood prompting debate are tuna and sea cucumbers, highly valued delicacies in the region.
When a subcommittee meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission was held in Japan in late August, tuna was high on the agenda. Members were adamant about defending their national interest in the tuna trade. The nine-member group failed to agree on how best to ensure sustainability.
Japan, the world’s largest tuna consumer, proposed that if evidence showed that tuna spawn was low for three consecutive years, fishing could be restricted to half the present catch limits. But the delegation from the U.S., where environmental groups demand more strict resource management, called the proposal “too loose.” Taiwan countered that the cuts were “too strict.” One negotiator from Japan’s Fisheries Agency told the Nikkei Asian Review that the talks were so heated that “there was no way to advance the discussion.”
The spiny slithery sea cucumber — revered by Chinese cooks as a tonic and now trading near all-time highs — is also stirring international troubles in the South Pacific. In the last year, at least seven Vietnamese boats were seized and destroyed in Australia while fishing for sea cucumber. In August, Micronesia said it seized up to 20 tons of the fish allegedly harvested by Vietnamese fishermen. A jump in market prices in Asia for sea cucumber — the Australian Fisheries Management Authority says prices have increased by 30% each year for the past five years — gives fishermen incentive to violate other countries’ territorial waters.
Feeling the heat
Overzealous fishing is not the only problem. Global warming is apparently making the situation worse. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the harvest from marine fisheries in Southeast Asia is expected to fall by between 10% and 30% by 2050 relative to recent catch levels as water temperatures rise. In some sea areas near Thailand and Indonesia, the harvests are forecast to drop over 40% in the same period.
Still, world fish production is projected to increase and meet the demand — all thanks to aquafarming. The FAO predicts that aquaculture will increase fish production by nearly 40% by 2025.
“Aquaculture could potentially cover the future gap created in our diet due to fish stock loss,” said Yoshitaka Ota, director of the Nippon Foundation Nereus Program and research associate at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, University of British Columbia. However, farmed fish may be an acquired taste, he said. “The aquacultured fish that are increasing in volume, such as catfish or tilapia, are not the species preferred for consumption by all countries. Therefore it won’t fill the gap unless we change our consumption preferences.”
Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, one of the largest in the world, may already see the future. The Pacific saury is a mainstay of Japanese dinner tables in autumn. This year, small saury, which normally are used for canned food, are being sold to retailers to market as grilled fish. “The situation is worsening year by year,” said Yasuteru Kobayashi, operating officer of the fresh fish department at wholesaler Tohto Suisan.
Part of the demand for fresh fish across Asia is supported by improved shipping and logistics. Just a few years ago, sushi and sashimi were hard to come by in the inland Chinese city of Chengdu, more than 1,000km from the coast. But Ma Haiqin, a 28-year-old worker at a local software company, now often buys tuna sashimi from a foreign-owned supermarket in the Sichuan Province city.
The tuna is shipped in from the coastal city of Dalian, more than 2,000km away, by refrigerated trucks. The supermarket’s supervisor said such logistical improvements have transformed the market for fish.
In Chengdu, tuna sashimi costs about 35 yuan ($5.16) for a package of five slices — nearly double the price for salmon sashimi. But tuna sashimi apparently has become popular among a younger generation of Asian consumers who travel and have money to spend on high-quality food. They are also conscious of the health benefits of fish.
Ma Haiqin now experiments by making sushi at home with tuna, boiled shrimp, salmon and seaweed. She watches videos online to ensure she prepares the fish properly. “I became a fan of sashimi during a trip to Japan,” she said.
The FAO’s report predicts that by 2025, per capita fish consumption will increase by 12% in Asia and Oceania, excluding Japan, Australia and New Zealand. The growth will be especially fast in China, with consumption seen increasing nearly 20%, compared with a global average of 8%. Japan is one of the few countries in the region where, due mainly to a large aging population, fish consumption is expected to fall, at an estimated 2%.
All this means that the waters around Asia are seas of competition. And authorities are increasingly sensitive to those fishing for big profits off their shores.
“We would like to come and visit your boat.” With that polite warning, a Thai navy ship gave chase Oct.19 to a small fishing boat in the Gulf of Thailand near Pattaya. Six navy soldiers eventually boarded the vessel to question the captain, asking for the registration documents and the crew roster. They opened the holding tank to see what the fisherman had caught — and then released them without incident.
This surprise check is part of the Thai navy’s latest campaign to crack down on overfishing and the possible use of illegal labor. It is also an attempt by Thailand to limit breaches of its territorial waters — something more Pacific nations are doing as part of stepped-up efforts to fight illegal fishing.
According to a recent report by the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, illegal fishing in the Pacific costs the industry up to 338,475 tons of tuna, or the equivalent of $740 million, a year.
Australia is among the countries that have seen a significant increase in illegal fishing vessels in their waters. Data from the Australian Fisheries Management Authority shows that 20 illegal foreign fishing boats were apprehended in the 2015 fiscal year ended in June, up from six the previous year.
Show of force
Some authorities in the region have responded aggressively. In September, three Chinese fishermen were killed in a boat fire near South Korea. According to local reports, South Korean maritime police threw flash grenades into the boat after it ignored a warning. The police said the boat was suspected of illegal fishing.
South Korea said in early October that it would use greater force in dealing with Chinese boats fishing illegally in its waters, including shooting at them. It recently summoned China’s ambassador to protest an incident in which a South Korean coast guard vessel was rammed by a Chinese boat that was allegedly fishing illegally. South Korea told the ambassador that the incident was “a challenge to public power.”
On Nov. 1, South Korea’s marine police for the first time fired a machine gun at two Chinese boats engaged in illegal fishing, according to a local report. China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying responded the next day that China “is strongly dissatisfied with the use of force”. China was asking Korea to exercise restrain and refrain “from applying extreme measures that could danger the Chinese people.” She added the Chinese authorities are working hard to regulate and discipline operations by the Chinese fishermen.
Illegal fishing, some fear, has the potential to unmoor diplomatic relations. Masanori Miyahara, president of the Japan Fisheries Research and Education Agency, said economies depend on the seas and countries need to be aware that competition along the coastlines is churning unease.
“For small countries like those in the South Pacific, illegal fishing by just one foreign boat can cause distrust toward the country,” he said. “One illegal fishing incident between two big countries could trigger high-level diplomatic talks.”
Nikkei staff writers Makoto Nakatogawa and Ami Yamada in Tokyo, Shunsuke Tabeta in Beijing, Yukako Ono in Bangkok and contributing writer Michael Field in Auckland contributed to this report.
Fishing fuels conflict in the South China Sea
CLIFF VENZON, Nikkei staff writer
MANILA As the Indonesian army marched at the presidential palace in Jakarta in August to celebrate the nation’s Independence Day, the navy and coast guard units were smashing holes in fishing boats that had encroached on its territory.
They sank 60 vessels that day, most of them were foreign-flagged. The record-setting action brought to 236 the number of illegal fishing boats destroyed since Indonesian President Joko Widodo came to power in October 2014.
Widodo has called this “shock therapy” to restrict illegal fishing, which officials estimate costs Indonesia up to $20 billion a year. The Indonesian archipelago, Southeast Asia’s biggest, has the world’s second-longest coastline and its largest tuna fishing grounds.
Indonesia used to take a low-key approach to safeguarding its maritime zones and has considered itself a nonparty to territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where its neighbors Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and China have overlapping claims. But China’s increasing assertiveness in the nearly 3.8 million-sq.-kilometer waterway — reflected in the adventurism and relentlessness of its fishermen to go as far as Indonesia — has prompted Widodo to take a tougher approach.
Indonesia is not alone in its battle against seafaring trespassers. In March, about 100 Chinese-registered boats guarded by Chinese coast guard units were detected fishing near the Luconia Shoals, which Malaysia considers part of its territory. The Malaysian government quickly deployed units from the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency and its navy in the area. In March, Vietnamese coast guard units seized a Chinese fuel ship in Vietnamese waters, and in May, the Philippine Coast Guard arrested 10 Chinese poachers who were found in possession of endangered black corals near the southern Philippine island of Camiguin.
In recent years, tensions in the disputed area have centered around fishermen, rather than military units. Analysts say countries including Vietnam and China have deliberately encouraged their coastal fishermen to operate farther afield in the South China Sea.
China has the world’s biggest fishing fleet, and it is being used “to assert its sovereignty over the entire South China Sea,” Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, told the Nikkei Asian Review in an email.
DOUBLE DUTY In the town of Tanmen on Hainan Island, China’s southernmost province, fishermen are playing a crucial role in Beijing’s maritime ambitions. A 70-year-old retired fisherman, who introduced himself merely as Li, said his job — like many others — was not only to catch fish. For years, he said, he had two duties when he left shore.
“As Chinese, we have to do one thing without complaint when necessary,” Li said, referring to fishermen working as militia. “When we are told by the state to go to the South China Sea, no matter what, fishermen in Tanmen must put on [militia clothes] and sail.”
When Li was still fishing, he would sail to the South China Sea with his colleagues for 100,000 yuan ($14,749) to 200,000 yuan per mission. Tanmen-based fishing boats are also equipped with advanced navigation systems that cost about 10,000 yuan, thanks to government subsidies.
Highlighting Tanmen’s strategic importance, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the town in April 2013 and gave a pep talk to local fishermen. “Please feel safe to fish,” Xi was reported as saying at the time. He also told maritime militia members to “collect oceanic information and support the construction of islands and reefs,” according to a report by the China Daily.
China has built at least seven artificial islands in the South China Sea and equipped them with runways and navigational support facilities to cement its territorial claims.
Some 300 to 400 fishing vessels are constantly anchored in Tanmen, and more than 1,000 local people make their living by fishing. Some of them, like 59-year-old Guo Hai, have grown increasingly cautious because of the risk of being arrested at sea. “As the South China Sea is dangerous, nobody wants to go there,” Guo said.
Many households in Tanmen proudly display pictures of Xi posing with local people. “We can live in the town and work [at] sea without anxiety — thanks to Mr. Xi,” one fisherman said.
China is the world’s largest fish producer, accounting for more than 17% of global output, according to a 2014 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. However, stocks are disappearing. Fisheries resources in the East China Sea and Bohai, the innermost gulf of the Yellow Sea, are severely depleted, and only the South China Sea is in better condition, Chinese media have reported, citing information from the Ministry of Agriculture, which has blamed overfishing.
DEPLETED STOCKS China’s annual catch has reached 13 million tons in recent years, much higher than the allowed volume of 8 million to 9 million tons, local media have reported, citing the ministry. In the Yangtze River, which accounts for 60% of the country’s total freshwater fish output, the annual catch is about 100,000 tons a year — less than a quarter of what fishermen caught in the 1950s, according to Chinese media.
If overfishing continues, China’s more reliable source may suffer the same fate as the Yellow Sea. Already, fish stocks in the South China Sea have fallen by 70% to 95% since the 1950s, according to researchers at the University of British Columbia.
With the government’s backing, Chinese fishermen have been emboldened to fish even beyond the “nine-dash line,” a historical demarcation of Beijing’s claim to more than 80% of the South China Sea. An international tribunal ruled in July that this claim has no legal or historical basis, but Beijing has refused to accept the ruling.
“Currently, fisheries [are an] important factor that influences China’s policies towards the South China Sea,” Zhang Hongzhou, an expert on regional maritime issues at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, told the Nikkei Asian Review.
In the tussle for supremacy in the region, discussions have mostly centered on oil and gas resources. But some analysts say the prospects for oil and gas are overhyped. A U.S. Geological Survey study has found that the South China Sea contains some 12 billion barrels of oil and 160 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves. But since most areas with oil and gas resources are within the exclusive economic zones of respective claimant countries, they are not really in dispute.
Fish “are certainly more important in escalating the disputes and causing conflict than is oil and gas,” said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Beyond depleting fish stocks, as fishermen become integral to their respective states’ maritime strategies, they also represent a security risk.
“An incident involving fishermen is the most likely cause of an incident that could provoke a crisis,” said Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines. “Militia vessels could do a lot of harm to other states’ vessels, and if the other states retaliate to protect themselves, Chinese coast guard and military vessels could then step in to retaliate with overwhelming force, claiming ‘provocation.'”
Poling said Chinese naval, air, coast guard, and paramilitary forces in disputed waters will increase rapidly as its military bases in the Spratly Islands become fully operational.
“That will lead to more frequent run-ins with fishermen and others from neighboring states,” he said. “Given that, it is a matter of when, not if, another crisis will erupt because of a lack of professionalism at sea or a failure to de-escalate rapidly enough.”
Nikkei staff writers Wataru Suzuki in Jakarta and Yu Nakamura in Tanmen, China, contributed to this report.
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