Media Release

Report exposes rampant illegal fishing in North Korean waters

Study reveals hundreds of vessels fishing illegally, contravening UN sanctions and fuelling overfishing.

A new study published today in the journal, Science Advances reveals widespread illegal fishing by dark fleets — vessels that do not publicly broadcast their location or appear in public monitoring systems — operating in the waters between the Koreas, Japan and Russia, some of the world’s most disputed and poorly-monitored waters.

The study, Illuminating Dark Fishing Fleets in North Korea, found more than 900 vessels of Chinese origin in 2017, and 700 in 2018, likely violated United Nations (UN) sanctions by fishing in North Korean waters. The vessels likely caught almost as much Pacific flying squid as Japan and South Korea combined — more than 160,000 metric tons worth over US $440 million in 2017-2018.

“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, senior data scientist at Global Fishing Watch and co-lead author of the study.

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

Following North Korea’s testing of ballistic missiles, the UN Security Council adopted resolutions in 2017 to sanction the country, and some of these prohibit foreign fishing.

The detected vessels originate from China and are assumed to be owned and operated by Chinese interests. However, because these vessels often do not carry appropriate papers, they are likely “three-no boats”— operating without official Chinese authority, with no registration, flag, or license.

Devastating impact on North Korean small-scale fishers

The study also found about 3,000 North Korean vessels fished illegally in Russian waters in 2018.

“Competition from the industrial Chinese trawlers is likely displacing the North Korean fishers, pushing them into neighboring Russian waters,” said study co-lead Jungsam Lee of the Korea Maritime Institute.

“The North Koreans’ smaller wood boats are ill-equipped for this long-distance travel.”

Hundreds of North Korean boats have washed ashore on Japanese and Russian coasts in recent years. These incidents often involve starvation and deaths, and many fishing villages on North Korea’s eastern coast have now been coined “widows’ villages”.

“The consequences of this shifting effort for North Korean small-scale fishers are profound, and represent an alarming and potentially growing human rights concern,” said co-author Katherine Seto, an assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Illuminating the Dark Fleet infographic


Rogue vessels plunder squid as catch declines

The study claims the previously unidentified vessels pose a huge challenge for squid stock management, with reported catches plummeting by 80 percent and 82 percent in South Korean and Japanese waters respectively since 2003. Pacific flying squid is South Korea’s top seafood by production value, one of the top five seafoods consumed in Japan and, until recent sanctions, was the third largest North Korean export.

Disagreement over boundaries in the waters between the Koreas, Japan and Russia have prevented joint fisheries management and hampered national efforts due to a lack of comprehensive stock assessments.

“Illegal fishing in these waters is a very serious matter in Japan, and the lack of shared data and management is a major challenge considering the critical importance of squid in the region,” said Masanori Miyahara, President of the Japan Fisheries Research and Education Agency.

“We must face this challenge using the evidence provided by this study and other credible science.”

Infographic about Japanese flying squid


Unprecedented use of satellite technologies to detect the dark fleets

The study used four satellite technologies to illuminate the dark fleets. Automatic identification system (AIS) — a collision avoidance system that constantly transmits a vessel’s location at sea – provides detailed vessel information, but is used by only a fraction of vessels.

The study added radar images, which can identify large metal vessels and penetrate clouds, night time imaging which picks up the presence of fishing vessels using lights to attract catch or conduct operations at night, and high-resolution optical imagery, which offers the best visual “proof” of vessel activity and type. These technologies have never before been combined to publicly reveal the activities and estimated catches of entire fleets at this scale.

“These novel insights are now possible thanks to advances in machine learning and the rapidly growing volume of high-resolution, high-frequency imagery that was unavailable even a couple of years ago.” said David Kroodsma, research and innovation director at Global Fishing Watch and co-author of the study.

“We’ve shown we can track industrial fishing vessels that are not broadcasting their locations.”

Infographic explaining the technology used to detect illegal fishing in North Korean waters


New analysis could underpin inter-Korean cooperation

The 2018 inter-Korean summits underlined the need to build peace through cooperation on the waters, create a joint fisheries management area, and address illegal fishing. Achieving these laudable ambitions will rely on unbiased information that all sides can trust.

“Global fisheries have long been dominated by a culture of unnecessary confidentiality and concealment. Achieving a comprehensive view of fishing activity is an important step toward truly sustainable and cooperative fisheries management, and satellite monitoring is a key part of the solution.” said Associate Professor Quentin Hanich of the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS) at the University of Wollongong and co-author.

“This analysis represents the beginning of a new era in ocean management and transparency.

The study was itself an example of international cooperation, with scientists from South Korea, Japan, Australia and the United States collaborating to reveal fishing activity in the region.

“The massive scale of this illegal operation poses substantial implications for fisheries governance and regional geopolitics. If the vessels are not approved by their flag State (China) and the coastal State (North Korea), then they are fishing illegally, as Chinese regulations require approval to fish in foreign waters, and coastal States are granted sovereign rights over fishing within their waters,” Professor Hanich said.

“Alternatively, if the vessels are authorised by either government, then these States are violating the UN Security Council 2017 sanctions against the sale or transfer of fishing rights.”

A North Korean fishing boat in Russian waters

A North Korean boat fishing in Russian waters.


Need to implement transparent and accountable monitoring

The study has implications for the management of fisheries and fish stocks worldwide, including in the Pacific.

“Satellite monitoring has long been available to government agencies, but political barriers and conflicts often hinder data sharing and effective joint fisheries management,” Professor Hanich said.

“This study demonstrates the urgent need to implement transparent monitoring and management of international fishing fleets to ensure safe, legal, and sustainable fishing.

“The Pacific has already implemented strong monitoring, control and surveillance systems for its waters under national jurisdiction. But this study demonstrates the urgent need for the Pacific to implement transparent and accountable monitoring for the high seas.

“Japanese flying squid can literally fly like rockets, accelerating through the air by expelling water out of their mantles for up to 30 metres. But even rocket-propelled squid are vulnerable to overfishing if States don’t cooperate to enforce restrictions, share data, and cooperatively implement sustainable management.”

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