Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 6 December 2019

Russia grapples with North Korean squid poachers

Hundreds of fishermen have been detained for poaching by Russian authorities

A South Korean navy vessel passes North Korean fishing boats. AP
A South Korean navy vessel passes North Korean fishing boats. AP

Frustration is building in Russia over thousands of North Korean boats illegally fishing for squid in its Pacific waters.

In the second such incident in as many weeks, Russia said on Friday it detained more than 260 fishermen for poaching in the Sea of Japan.

The area is bordered by Japan, Russia and North and South Korea and there are frequent disputes over fishing rights there.

Russians along the Far Eastern coast told AFP they can often see lights from North Korea's boats at night.

In one incident earlier this month, one North Korean was killed and several members of the Russian coastguard were injured in a shoot-out when the crew of one boat resisted arrest.

But the fear of detention or even death is not enough to deter impoverished North Koreans and experts say their government will not dare to crack down on their activities.

The fishermen use rudimentary wooden boats and drift nets that have been banned in Russia since 2015 because they indiscriminately trap all marine life, from salmon to seals, and can endanger divers, the Russians complain.

"They don't just fish, they destroy all sea life, and that worries us," said Natalia Ivanova, who lives in Olga, a village some 400 kilometres (250 miles) up the coast from North Korea's border.

"The coast guard is taking measures, but what can one (patrol) vessel do when there are 300 to 400 boats?" Ms Ivanova said.

Dozens of North Korean boats took refuge from a storm in Olga earlier this month. Last year, the body of a fisherman was found floating nearby, Ms Ivanova said.

"They fish in our inlet. It's an outrage."

Abandoned boats wash ashore in nature reserves, polluting the coast with debris and leftover fuel.

Georgy Martynov, who heads a regional association of fishing companies, said some Russian vessels have become stranded after their propellers were tangled up with drift nets.

"North Koreans go into areas of intense navigation and don't use international communication channels. The situation endangers our ships," he said.

Russian and North Korean diplomats this week discussed poaching in Moscow, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday said "energetic measures are needed" to deal with the problem.

Foreign vessels are allowed to take shelter along the Russian coast during a storm.

But many in the far east say North Korean boats are using this as an excuse to poach in territorial waters.

Russia's fisheries agency told AFP it issued no fishing permits to North Korea this year, and all boats in Russian waters were illegal.

Vyacheslav Dubina, an oceanographer based in Vladivostok who studies biodiversity, told AFP he has observed "mass poaching" in recent years.

Mr Dubina analyses satellite images to evaluate naval traffic in the Sea of Japan.

In a recent research paper, he calculated that as many as 3,100 North Korean boats were fishing in the Russian economic zone simultaneously in September 2018, six times more than the entire Russian fishing fleet in the Far East.

The number could be greater because some boats turn their lights off, causing near-collisions with Russian yachtsmen, he said.

Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Kookmin University, warned that even a strong coast guard response and diplomatic warnings may not deter poachers.

Sea resources have been depleted in North Korea's own waters, and better Chinese engines enable fishermen to venture farther north, he said.

"Most likely the number of such incidents will only increase."

"The North Koreans couldn't care less about breaching foreign waters," Mr Lankov said.

A wooden boat costs a little over a thousand dollars, and many have made the investment in recent years.

Due to the country's collapsed industry, "it's the only way to earn money so it's worth the risk," the expert said.

North Korea's government is unlikely to intervene, he added, because it would be "dangerous" to leave the country's most able-bodied and enterprising men jobless.

Export of seafood to China is still a key source of income for the country, and fishing sustains hundreds of thousands of people, he said.

Fishermen "are only afraid of confiscation of boats."

"They are not afraid of violence or gunfire and to them, Russian prisons are quite comfortable."

Updated: September 27, 2019 11:43 PM

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