North Korea’s ‘ghost ships’ linked to illegal fishing by China fleet, study finds

“Dark fleets” of hundreds of Chinese vessels are fishing illegally in North Korean waters, according to a study, forcing displaced local fishermen to risk their lives in distant waters in unsafe boats, many of which are carried across rough seas to the coast of Japan.

In a report published on Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, Global Fishing Watch (GFW), says more than 900 vessels of Chinese origin fished illegally in the area in 2017, and 700 in 2018. Together it is estimated they caught more than 160,000 metric tonnes of squid, worth more than $440m (£346m).

The organisation said illegal Chinese fishing over the two-year period was probably a breach of UN sanctions banning North Korea from earning foreign currency through, for example, the provision of fishing licences to foreign vessels.

“The scale of the fleet involved in this illegal fishing is about one-third the size of China’s entire distant-water fishing fleet. It is the largest known case of illegal fishing perpetrated by vessels originating from one country operating in another nation’s waters,” said Jaeyoon Park, a senior data scientist at GFW and co-lead author of the study.

“By synthesising data from multiple satellite sensors, we created an unprecedented, robust picture of fishing activity in a notoriously opaque region.”

GFW, a non-profit organisation campaigning for greater transparency in the fishing industry, used a combination of four satellite technologies to form a detailed picture of the dark fleets, so named because they do not publicly broadcast their location or appear in public monitoring systems.

“Put together, the technology, which wasn’t available even a couple of years ago, has given us a comprehensive and complete picture of their movements for the first time,” Park told the Guardian before the study’s publication. “We can show that this illegal fishing is not an anomaly, it’s systemic.”

The Chinese vessels are displacing local fleets, forcing about 3,000 North Korean boats to catch squid illegally in Russian waters in 2018, the report says. Some run out of fuel or experience engine trouble and are carried to the coast of Japan by fierce currents and strong prevailing winds.

Over the past five years, Japanese media have reported almost 600 North Korean “ghost ships” along the coast of Japan – including 158 last year – some containing the decomposed corpses of their crew. The high death toll among fishermen has created “widows’ villages” on the east coast of North Korea, according to GFW.

“Competition from the industrial Chinese trawlers is likely displacing the North Korean fishers, pushing them into neighbouring Russian waters,” said Jungsam Lee, of the Korea Maritime Institute. “The North Koreans’ smaller wood boats are ill-equipped for this long-distance travel.”

Experts have said North Korean fishermen are taking risks in response to calls by the regime to increase catches amid food shortages, but the GFW study is the first time the ghost ship phenomenon has been linked to illegal fishing by Chinese vessels.

“There is a strong correlation between the number of North Korean boats fishing illegally in Russian waters and the number of boats washing ashore in Japan,” Park said.

The previously unidentified Chinese vessels also pose a threat to squid stocks, with catches in Japan and South Korea declining by about 80% since 2003, according to the study, which involved scientists from South Korea, Japan, Australia and the US.

“Countries in the region must urgently find a better way to manage squid stocks before they go the same way as the bluefin tuna,” Park said.