Coast Guard pushes back tide of illegal Chinese fishermen

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Coast Guard pushes back tide of illegal Chinese fishermen

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Left: The Korean Coast Guard attempts to board a Chinese fishing boat violating Korea’s exclusive economic zone on Wednesday. Right: A Chinese fisherman erects a barricade to try to block the Korean marine police. By Oh Jong-chan

A stern command to stand by comes through the speaker at the Korea Coast Guard’s headquarters in Mokpo, and the uniformed men equip themselves with a variety of arms ranging from pistols to police sticks.

The adversary has been spotted: 10 Chinese fishing boats deliberately straying into Korea’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the West Sea.

“We have to avoid any loss of life,” Kim Joon-pyo, deputy captain of a patrol boat, tells his men, “but we should obtain clear evidence that the trawlers were illegally operating in our waters.”

Kim and his 15 marine police sail southwest to where the Chinese vessels were detected by radar. At 4:30 p.m., the Koreans spot the illegal fleet 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) ahead.

“Give a signal to stop the vessels,” the deputy captain commands. An ear-splitting signal is sounded over and over again, but the boats ignore it.

The Coast Guard’s ship approaches one of the Chinese boats. It is fitted with a 1.5-meter (4.9-feet) steel barrier topped with barbed wire, obviously meant to stop any attempt to forcibly board the boat.

It achieves its purpose, and the Coast Guard team calls in a helicopter and rigid-hulled inflatable boat, a lightweight but high-performance boat that can maneuver among the Chinese boats more easily.

The helicopter hovers overhead, buffeting the boats with the wind from its wings, and throws smoke bombs. The beleaguered boats use ropes to tie themselves into one unit to better defend themselves from being boarded.

But the steel barricades start falling, and the marine police manage to board. The Chinese fishermen shriek and wave knives at them. The Koreans don’t back down, and the Chinese finally surrender.

Han Woo-gi, a 28-year old guardsman, sustained a fracture when he slipped on a wet boat deck.

The Coast Guard took six out of 10 ships into custody. The other four managed to slip back across the border.

“I didn’t have any choice but to work in the off-limits waters because the contaminated Chinese side doesn’t have edible fish,” said Wang Fu Ju, a 50-year-old Chinese man who was taken into custody. “That’s why we take the risk illegally fishing in Korea’s waters, where a broad range of fish is available.”

The Chinese were fishing for anchovies and croakers. Korea is supposed to free them after receiving 150 million won ($141,150) per boat in a fine, according to an agreement between China and Korea.

“The illegal fishing by Chinese fishermen causes an annual loss of 125 billion won to Korea, and the accumulated loss since 2001 has now reached 1.6 trillion won,” said Park Shin-cheol, an official at the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries.

The marine police recently stepped up its crackdown as China ended its moratorium for fishing on Oct. 15. Since 1994, China has adopted a seasonal moratorium on fishing in the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea to replenish fish stocks. When the moratorium ends, trawlers come out in droves and often go beyond China’s maritime zone.

The number of illegal fishing cases by Chinese boats in Korean waters surpassed 4,600 over the past 10 years, according to data compiled by the Fisheries Ministry.

The number of vessels started to decrease from 2005, but it has been back on the rise for three years in a row: 370 in 2010; 534 in 2011; and 467 in 2012.

The growing number of cases translates into an increase in the amount of fines paid by seized Chinese ships. For this year, the account reached 10.3 billion won as of the end of last month, surpassing the 10 billion mark for the third consecutive year since 2011.

The exclusive economic zone has become a frequent flash point for incidents involving Korean marine police and Chinese fishing vessels.

In an incident earlier this month, a court issued an arrest warrant with detention for 13 Chinese fishermen on charges of wounding four coast guard sailors.

Such clashes often cause diplomatic spats, as in a case in which a Chinese fisherman was shot dead by a Korean Coast Guard officer in October 2012 after violent resistance to a raid.

Korea’s Navy chief visited China to improve relations with the Chinese military and discuss the issue of illegal fishing by Chinese vessels near the disputed western sea border with North Korea in July.

BY KWON CHEOL-AM [ejpark@joongang.co.kr]

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