Ship collisions and the war over fish

Yoshihide Suga. Credit: Getty Images/Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP
Depleted seafood catches and the need to feed North Korea’s growing population have encouraged illegal fishing in Japanese waters. As coastguards go all out to enforce boundaries, collisions between patrol vessels and fishing trawlers are inevitable.

A North Korean vessel collided with a Japanese patrol vessel on 7 October 2019 in Japan’s squid-rich Yamatotai area in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Noto Peninsula, off Ishikawa prefecture.

In this collision, 60 North Korean fishermen fell into the waters. They were rescued and repatriated on another North Korean vessel because their vessel had sunk. The waters are too deep to attempt a recovery of the boat, preventing the gathering of alleged evidence of illegal fishing.

While Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe protested North Korea’s alleged illegal fishing, North Korea has, through its embassy in Beijing, demanded compensation from Tokyo and accused the Japanese Fisheries Agency of deliberately ramming the fishing boat and endangering the fishermen’s lives. Pyongyang has also demanded that Japan take steps to prevent such incidents from recurring.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said on 15 October that Japan absolutely cannot accept the North Korean demand and has lodged a protest to Pyongyang through diplomatic channels in Beijing.

Suga added that the government is considering when to release video footage of the collision, showing the Japanese Fisheries Agency’s action was justified. Jane’s principal defence analyst Ridzwan Rahmat told SAS that law enforcement authorities tend to ram trespassing vessels.

“Ramming incidences are increasing between white-hull vessels [coastguard-type forces] and fishing vessels. Instead of deploying more lethal suppression methods such as firearms, government enforcement vessels are resorting towards ramming as a method to mitigate against casualties,” said Rahmat.

While the collision may escalate into a diplomatic crisis, Japan has had a frosty relationship with South Korea and North Korea, going back to its forced annexation of the Korean Peninsula in 1910. Rahmat said that as population growth drives food demand, depleted fishing catches are tempting fisheries to cross into another country’s waters.

There have also been incidents where Chinese fishing vessels entered the Taiwan Strait and were pursued by the Taiwan Coast Guard. Despite the reaction from Japan and North Korea to the 7 October incident, North Korean fishing vessels are unlikely to refrain from crossing into Japan any time soon.

On 16 October, another North Korean fishing vessel capsized near the spot of the 7 October incident. Carrying 14 fishermen, the vessel sank 350 km northwest of the Noto Peninsula. It is unknown whether the vessel was in the EEZ.

At a media briefing, Suga said that the Japanese Fisheries Agency had received a distress call from another North Korean boat. Seven of the 14 fishermen on the boat were rescued by another North Korean boat in the area, while the others are still missing. Suga said that the Japanese Fisheries Agency and Japan Coast Guard are still looking for the missing men.