The hidden cost of squid

Words by Joseph Sullivan

It can be found in restaurants all over the world… the humble squid.

Culinarily termed calamari, squid is a seafood staple in cuisines across the planet, enjoyed as a healthy, versatile, and nutritious protein source. Yet this dish, enjoyed by millions of people every day, might carry with it a hidden cost which far exceeds that printed on the menu.

The story of the hidden cost of calamari begins along the shores of the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea. This is one of the most heavily contested and poorly monitored patches of ocean on the planet, framed by four countries (S. Korea, N. Korea, Japan and Russia) all of whom stake overlapping and disputed territorial claims to its waters. It is here that a mysterious and grizzly phenomenon has baffled the Japanese authorities for years. Along the length of Japan’s west coast, hundreds of North Korean fishing vessels have been washing up on the shores, their only cargo; the decomposing bodies of their crews.

New revelations have come to light that may explain this macabre phenomenon. An extensive investigation by NBC News and The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organisation based in Washington D.C. focused on crimes at sea, has revealed the largest fleet of illegal fishing boats ever documented and the role this previously invisible flotilla may be playing in the dead bodies washing ashore in Japan, as well as a precipitous decline in the squid stock in nearby waters.

The grim discoveries of these so-called ‘Ghost Ships’ is disturbingly common in Japan. As many as 165 of these vessels were found in 2019, with the Japanese Coast Guard reporting the bodies of 50 North Koreans washing up in the same period, according to the investigation. The ships are largely dilapidated, wooden vessels with little to no facilities or shelter for those unfortunate enough to serve as their crew. Autopsies carried out on the bodies found onboard these vessels revealed the crews to be overwhelmingly male, most of whom died through starvation, dehydration or hypothermia. Yet the mystery of why so many of these doomed vessels are washing up, sometimes carried for months by wind, current and tide to Japan’s shores has long been unanswered.

Decades of mutual suspicion and a tense international relationship between Japan and North Korea have made it difficult to ascertain answers in the past, with theories ranging from conspiracies of North Korean spies using fishing vessels to land on Japanese shores, the use of such vessels to abduct Japanese fishermen and speculation that these boats could even be sent with carriers of weaponised infectious diseases.

The Outlaw Ocean Korean Ghost Ships Squid wreckage
The Outlaw Ocean Korean Ghost Ships Squid
The Outlaw Ocean Korean Ghost Ships Squid drone

Such paranoia is largely dispelled, the more likely scenario being that these are desperately poor fishermen from Kim Jong Un’s hermit state, who find themselves under ever greater pressure from Pyongyang to catch larger quantities of what is already a stock under strain. Thus, desperation has driven them to explore and exploit waters far beyond North Korea’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ); the expanse of ocean stretching 200 nautical miles from shore in which a coastal state alone has the sole rights to resource exploitation.

The largely unseaworthy North Korean vessels have been documented further and further offshore, making repeated incursions into the territorial waters of the surrounding states. Yet pressure at the hands of the government is not thought to be the sole reason for these dangerous forays into foreign waters.

The investigation was conducted by an international team of academic researchers, Ian Urbina, a former New York Times investigative reporter who now directs The Outlaw Ocean Project, NBC News and Global Fishing Watch, a non-profit organisation that specialises in the use of satellite technology and Artificial Intelligence to track illegal activities on the high seas including arms and human trafficking, dumping of oil at sea and illegal fishing. This armada of Chinese vessels, exceeding 700 in number, had until recently been operating in the shadows owing to their captains routinely turning off their Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponders, rendering them invisible to authorities on land. Global Fishing Watch was able to detect the previously invisible fleet thanks to satellite technology capable of detecting the extremely bright lights used by squid fishermen at night to coax their prey closer to the surface. Despite this fleet’s best efforts to hide, the Chinese vessels, which are typically far larger than their North Korean counterparts, were also detected whilst pair trawling, the process in which two vessels string a large net between them and trawl the seas together, making them easier to spot in satellite imagery.

The Outlaw Ocean team documented the Chinese fleet crossing into North Korean waters under the cover of darkness, travelling with their AIS transponders off merely 100 miles from shore. These vessels are operating in direct violation of the 2017 sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council (of which China is a member) in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear tests. Those sanctions forbid all fishing by foreign vessels in North Korean waters, in a bid to stifle a previously vital source of revenue in the form of fishing rights sold to foreign operators. However, the investigation suggests a willingness to flout such rules, accusing North Korean government agents of illegally selling fishing rights to Chinese operators, enabling these vessels to continue to pillage their waters with impunity.

The Chinese vessels are notoriously aggressive and known to intimidate local fishermen around the wider region. In North Korean waters, it appears that they have out-muscled local fishermen, who cannot compete with their larger ships, which often exceed a gross tonnage of 200 tonnes; forcing them to take further out to sea, encroaching into the EEZ’s of Japan, South Korea and Russia in search of an adequate catch. All too often, their vessels are unfit for such voyages, increasingly crewed by inexperienced mariners; often soldiers haphazardly retrained as fishermen. Many crews have fallen victim to the harsh conditions in these waters, battered by heavy storms, or succumbing to exposure. Whereas many have had their fate sealed by simple engine failures, or running out of fuel, suffering a tragically slow death as their battered wooden ships drift for months on the currents.

The impact of the illegal Chinese fleet has been severe, perhaps nowhere more so than in the dozens of widows villages that dot the North Korean coast, a macabre reference to the communities in which men have gone to sea and never returned. However, their actions have touched thousands of more lives around the East Sea.

“Climate change and rising ocean temperatures have already placed squid fisheries in Japan under significant strain. Fishermen here have witnessed their hauls steadily decline year on year throughout the previous decade, with the country’s landings crashing by approximately 78% since 2003. These fishermen despair as Chinese & North Korean vessels poach largely unimpeded in their waters, including the rich Yamato Bank fishing grounds, where up to 1,000 North Korean vessels are reported to descend throughout the squid season, and huge Chinese trawlers in excess of 500 tonnes regularly ply their illegal trade,” said Urbina, who reported on the investigation from Korean waters.

In response to the huge slump in their catch, the price of Japanese flying squid, an iconic staple of Japan’s cuisine, has doubled in recent years, putting it beyond the reach of many from the countries of blue-collar/middle-class communities. The challenges the squid industry faces were highlighted as the country’s Fisheries Policy Council proposed setting its lowest ever annual catch quota for the species in 2020 at just 57,000 tonnes, a reduction of 14.9% from the previous year in response to the decline in the health of the stock. In the absence of adequate law enforcement on the poachers’ operations, many fishing communities along Japan’s West coast, traditionally built on the squid industry, face an increasingly difficult and uncertain future.

In South Korea, the intense overfishing by the Chinese fleet in the waters of the North has also had a domino effect on the fortune of its fishermen. The Japanese flying squid is a migratory species, traversing the boundaries of multiple EEZ’s and the high seas throughout their short one-year lifecycle. The species is known to spawn in the East China Sea, close to the South Korean island of Jeju, before migrating north into the Sea of Japan during the spring months, eventually swimming south once more to their birthplace where they will mate before they die.

The Chinese fleet is accused of overfishing the squid population within North Korea’s waters, decimating its stock through indiscriminate trawling methods which often catch squid whilst immature. This diminishes the stocks chance of natural replenishment and drastically reduces the available catch in South Korean waters. Indeed, figures from Seoul’s Korea Maritime Institute make for grim reading, with a 48% decline in the country’s squid catch reported between 2003-2017, recently adding that the catch of 2019 was at its lowest level since 1990.

The enormous decline in squid landings in South Korea has hit many local fishing communities hard, such as the city of Sokcho, some 210km east of Seoul. Fishermen here claim that their boats, using traditional methods of lights and lures known as jigs can only catch 15% of the haul raked in by the illegal Chinese ships, with some operators reporting a decline in profits of as much as 60%. On Ulleungdo, a small island located 120km to the east of Korea’s mainland, the squid industry has been an integral part of the local culture, economy and identity for centuries, yet as much as a third of the island’s fishermen are now unemployed, said Mr. Urbina who visited the island. The island’s once-booming sector now faces a crisis, producing only 985 tonnes of squid in 2016 compared to nearly 10,000 tonnes landed in the early 2000s according to the Yonhap News Agency.

The Outlaw Ocean Korean Ghost Ships Squid fishing
The Outlaw Ocean Korean Ghost Ships Squid Global Fishing Watch

To compound the misery of the residents of Ulleungdo, the armada of illegal Chinese vessels routinely descend on the island to take shelter in instances of severe storms. According to the local county governor, Kim Byeong Su, the uninvited visitors engage in the wanton pollution of the island and its surrounding seas, routinely dumping plastic waste and oil, running loud and smoky generators, as well as dragging their anchors; destroying the islands freshwater pipes in the process.

China is both the single largest producer and consumer of seafood in the world, with as much as 65 million tonnes caught annually despite ever-dwindling stocks within its own waters owing to decades of rampant overfishing and poor fisheries management. The depleted stocks within China’s EEZ coupled with the insatiable appetite for seafood of its 1.38bn people, bolstered by a burgeoning middle class, has driven its enormous fleet to venture further around the globe with an armada of as many as 17,000 vessels, pillaging waters as far afield as Latin America and the coasts of West Africa.

Closer to home, China’s fishing fleet continues to flout international laws, making repeated incursions into several sovereign territories around the South China Sea, whilst Beijing continues to stake large territorial claims in disputed areas such as the Senkaku and Spratly Islands. Beyond fishing, there is the worryingly real potential for serious geopolitical escalations with several states, including Japan, The Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan amongst others, over territory and access to resources.

China’s is the largest Distant Water Fishing fleet (DWF) in the world, with squid representing more than half of the fleet’s catch beyond its EEZ. China’s huge maritime expansion has enabled it to dominate the global squid market, estimated to account for 50-70% of global catches in international waters, half of which is then exported for sale in Europe, the US and across Asia.

In the United Kingdom, the demand for squid is strong, with 7,100 tonnes imported from across the globe in 2018, according to the most recent Sea Fisheries statistics published by the Westminster’s Marine Management Organisation. China now represents the UK’s largest importer of seafood by tonnage, with 63,000 tonnes imported in 2018. In the case of squid, a short stroll around major supermarkets reveals squid products landed by Chinese vessels readily available on British shelves. Though it is unclear that any of the squid in British markets came from the illegal fleet fishing in North Korean waters, it is worth pointing out that seafood is notoriously difficult to trace from bait to plate. This is especially true of produce from China’s fragmented DWF, with thousands of vessels operating for different companies, registered to myriad jurisdictions.

Recently published research into the Chinese DWF from the independent Overseas Development Institute concluded as many as 927 Chinese vessels are operating under a foreign registration, with many utilising so called flags of convenience; sailing under the flags of nations where environmental, safety or labour standards are more lapse and less readily enforced, than that of their own state. The research also found that as many as 183 vessels in the Chinese DWF could be involved in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing activities, whilst many more may be operating invisibly around the globe, like those discovered in the NBC/The Outlaw Ocean investigation.

The recent discovery highlights the enormity of shortcomings in terms of international law and its enforcement across the world’s oceans. The myriad loopholes and grey areas in legal structures such as the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea coupled with a lack of enforcement in the case of squid fishing, and a lack of transparency in the international supply chain leaves consumers largely in the dark about the hidden cost of their food, beyond that printed on the menu. Highlighting the need to ask the sometimes-uncomfortable questions of where our seafood produce is from, how it is caught, and perhaps most of all, at whose expense?

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