Saying No To Illegal Seafood

With IUU fishing still a huge topic for the world's fishing industry, what's next for Japan?

In July 2020, a study published by non-profit organisation Global Fishing Watch revealed one of the largest known cases of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Between 2017 and 2019, nearly a thousand Chinese vessels were detected in North Korean waters fishing for Pacific flying squid. This was likely in violation of domestic regulations and United Nations (UN) sanctions, which prohibit countries from purchasing fishing rights or procuring seafood from North Korea.

A North Korean squid boat in operation in the Russian EEZ in 2018. These are generally equipped with only 5-20 light bulbs used to lure squid. They use driftnets during the daytime, and the squid catch is usually dried on the deck. Image: © Seung-Ho Lee

Through multi-sensor satellite technologies and machine learning, optical and radar imagery, taken over 40 days during the squid fishing season (May to December), was combined with daily observations of nighttime optical imagery and automatic identification system (AIS) vessel tracking data.

As well as drawing widespread interest, the study underlined the value of transparency and technology to improve the monitoring of fishing activities.

A 55-60m lighting vessel of Chinese origin near North Korean waters. This vessel flew both North Korean and Chinese flags. Image: © Seung-Ho Lee

According to Jaeyoon Park, senior data analyst at Global Fishing Watch, among the most significant findings was the detection in 2017 of more than 900 Chinese vessels. A further 700 vessels were detected in 2018, again fishing in North Korean waters.

From 2017 to 2018, the vessels are likely to have caught almost as much Pacific flying squid as Japan and South Korea combined – more than 160,000 tonnes worth over US$440 million. Park says that satellite technology and local expertise can play huge roles in revealing the activities of these kinds of vessels, identifying potential hotspots of IUU fishing.

IUU fishing has significant impacts on marine life and coastal communities. Squid stocks in North Korean waters are reported to have been plummeting by around 80% since 2003. It can also hinder the recovery of overfished stocks and prevent scientists from making accurate calculations of fishing pressure.

The study has also had some implications for Japan’s fishing industry. It reveals the possibility that some of the Chinese vessels were forcing North Korean boats out of the area, causing them to wash up in Japan.

As well as the Chinese vessels in North Korean waters, the study also reveals a few thousand smaller North Korean vessels fishing illegally in Russian waters, and a strong correlation between the size of the illegal fishing operation in Russian waters and the number of North Korean vessels, known as ghost ships, washing up empty or with human remains on Japanese shores.

But this is one of many other impacts, says Wakao Hanaoka, CEO of Seafood Legacy, a consulting firm in Tokyo that specialises in sustainable seafood.

A satellite image of pair trawlers in North Korean waters. Grey ovals show where the neural net classifier identified pair trawlers. In this area, Global Fishing Watch received AIS data from several vessels (only two shown). Image: © Planet

‘One of the most prominent is that Japan has seen a dramatic decline in its squid catch volume,’ he said.

‘In 1996 it was 440,000 tonnes, but by 2020 it had decreased to 37,000 tonnes. Japan’s squid industry is at a critical stage, and on top of climate change, illegal fishing by China is just another reason why catches are declining here. China is also the biggest supplier of squid to Japan and there is a high chance that squid caught illegally is being consumed here. In order to address this, Japan established a new law that includes import control rules to stop IUU fishing-sourced products from entering Japanese markets. The law will be enforced in December this year, and squid is listed as one of the target species of import controls.’