[Viewpoint] China must see the bluefin tuna

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[Viewpoint] China must see the bluefin tuna

The Chinese government has absurdly demanded that Korean forces eliminate the use firearms on Chinese fishermen in any situation and “apply civilized law enforcement.” Beijing issued a similar request when the Korean government allowed the use of firearms after Coast Guard officer Lee Cheong-ho was killed by a Chinese fisherman in early December.

We don’t have to go far back in time to encounter this recurring Chinese rhetoric. In December 2010, when a Chinese fishing boat slammed into a South Korean patrol boat, the tone of Beijing’s response was no different. When two Chinese crewmembers died, the Chinese foreign ministry demanded Seoul reprimand those responsible and pay compensation for the damage.

Beijing backed down only after a video recording showed that the Chinese boat had rammed into the Korean patrol vessel and the Chinese crewmembers admitted they were operating illegally in the Korean Exclusive Economic Zone.

Chinese fishing boats are still operating illegally. Last week, four boats were caught while fishing in the Yellow Sea. The Chinese boats fish so aggressively that they frequently capsize because of the excessive weight of their nets.

Korea also has a rather embarrassing past in regards to its international fishing policies. In the mid-1990s, Japanese fishermen used to stage fierce protests as small Korean fishing boats went into waters near Hokkaido and Shimane and depleted the resources.

The illegal operations ended with the Korea-Japan Fisheries Agreement. Korea has since invested 6 trillion won ($5.2 billion) to shift the focus of its fishing industry to farming. Here, we should credit former President Roh Moo-hyun for the change. The voters in fishing villages had supported Roh, who had served as the minister of affairs and fisheries.

President Roh, however, implemented a hard-line plan to eradicate the operation of small fishing boats equipped with fine nets. President Roh was not deterred by the resistance of the fishermen. Gradually, the survival rate for young fish increased and the resource became abundant again. On Sept. 8, 2011, a miracle happened in the waters off Namhae County, South Gyeongsang: An extraordinarily large bluefin tuna was caught in a net installed near the land. It had been 25 years since a large tuna - the final predator of the ocean - was caught in the fixed net. The coastal fishing resources have been restored so close to perfection that even such a large fish approached the coast.

The aggression of Chinese fishing boats are testing Korea’s patience. The temptation to use strong measures is growing. Russia and Brazil use firearms and impose heavy fines for each fish caught illegally, and it sounds like an appealing approach.

The best solution, however, is for China to realize the negative externalities of its fishing habits and refrain from the illegal operation. China has implemented its “zero growth” policy aimed at restricting expansion of inshore fishing. However, fish have long been extinct in the coastal waters, more because of excessive fishing than pollution.

China must decrease the number of fishing boats from the current 300,000 units, the largest in the world, and limit the number of fishing nets. Lately, Chinese people increasingly prefer local fish, and the fish caught in the Yellow Sea are sold at a premium for the Chinese New Year. At this rate, resources will dry up in no time.

China has forced Japan to surrender by limiting the export of rare earth materials. Beijing may boast its tactical victory, but the incident has evoked concerns in the international community. The tension will obviously escalate if Beijing continues to neglect the issue. The Chinese foreign ministry claimed that it was mere diplomacy to protect Chinese fishermen.

But are they really working on behalf of the Chinese fishermen? Should they let the struggling fishermen operate in the EEZ of a neighbor or act to restore fisheries in its waters? If China invests 10 percent of its 60 trillion won assistance made to other countries, it can bring peace to the Yellow Sea.

Those at the Chinese foreign ministry should see the huge bluefin tuna caught in the fixed net in Namhae. The fish is symbolic. Just as the earth is honest, the ocean does not lie. China needs a leader like President Roh who had a long-term vision and truly cared for the fishing population.

Moreover, the dispute over illegal fishing operations has disappeared between Korea and Japan. Four years ago, the Japanese Coast Guard miscalculated the sea routes and captured a Korean fishing boat. They apologized and released the boat immediately. The incident was completely different than the current tragedy in the Yellow Sea.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Chul-ho
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