Yamatotai’s location is denoted in by the red circle.

Yamatotai is located in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), 300 kilometers west of the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture, and is considered a prime fishing area. The area was discovered in 1924 by a Japanese navy research vessel called the Yamato, its namesake. Yamatotai has an average water depth of 300-500 meters, shallower than the surrounding waters, and is home to an abundant supply of marine life due to the southward flowing cold Liman Current that meets the warm Kuroshio Current flowing northwards in the area. The region sees large harvests of squid every year during the fishing season, with many Japanese fishing boats in the area.  

From several years ago, however, there has been a large number of small wooden boats coming to the area, suspected to be of North Korean origin. These boats are responsible for an increase in illegal fishing in the area. What drives North Korean fishermen to climb into small boats made for coastal fishing and head out to the open ocean to fish?

The North Korean authorities have sold the rights to fishing in Yeonan to the Chinese as a way to earn foreign currency for the regime. For this reason, the North Korean fishermen must risk their lives and head out to the open ocean if they want to catch fish. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) stated in a report to the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee in July 2016 that, “North Korea sold rights for 1,500 fishing boats to China – a number three times larger than that permitted in an average year – to fish in its waters last year and made profits of some 30 million US dollars,” and that, “North Koreans have a lot of complaints about the authorities selling off the right to fish to the Chinese and the reduction in available stocks.”

Another reason is that economic difficulties due to the international sanctions on North Korea have made fishing a popular profession among North Koreans because they can earn a relatively large amount of money. Squid fishing in particular is more profitable than other types of fishing and even those without any experience are entering the profession, defectors say. A defector who was previously affiliated with the Marine Co-operative in Chongjin said that “each year, there are more and more people without relevant experience who go out and fish.”

“They do it just to earn a living,” he added, noting that people start fishing after hearing rumors that it can be very profitable. “Selling octopus when prices are high can allow you to live [without financial worries] for a year. People are trying to catch octopus so they can rest easy for a year.”

Recently, however, there are signs that the number of squid in the East Sea is declining. Sikata Takahumi, a researcher at the General Marine Center in Noto, Ishikawa Prefecture, told Daily NK on May 11 that, “There were many squid in this area [the East Sea] in the past, but now their numbers have fallen and still seem to be declining,” adding that “the amount of squid caught by Japanese and Korean fishermen in the area is also falling.”

Japanese squid fishermen are gradually raising the alarm about the damage North Korean illegal fishing is doing to the Yamatotai fishing grounds. Yamasita Hisaya Ogijiso (62), head of operations for the Fishing Cooperative Union in Noto in Ishikawa Prefecture, told Daily NK on May 11 that, “North Korean fishermen use drift-net fishing techniques, which catches everything from small to large squid. This causes major damage [to the ecosystem].” Drift-net fishing is a practice that involves a large fishing net being dragged along the seabed. The technique has in recent years been banned by many countries because it leads to ecological damage.

“We were going to fish from June last year to January this year, but last year we didn’t catch any squid so we had to stop fishing in December,” he added, explaining that [the co-op] only earned 2 billion yen last year, a huge decrease from their previous annual returns (3.5 billion yen).

“In the past, there were North Korean fishing boats in the area, but not as many,” he said. “I heard that North Korean fishermen can earn a years’ worth of money in just a month or two if they catch squid, so that’s why they seem to be risking their lives.”

Fishermen in Ishikawa Prefecture are not the only ones complaining about damage being done by the North Korean fishing boats. Nisimura Sakari, who works at the main office of the Yamagata Prefecture Fishing Cooperative Union in Sakata, Yamagata Prefecture, told Daily NK on May 14, “We had planned to continue fishing activities until the end of February this year, but there were so many North Korean boats that there were no squid left to catch. We had to stop fishing activities in December last year.The harvest of squid fell so much that our profits fell 300 million yen compared to last year.”

A table comparing the profits from fishing last year provided by the coop shows that the amount of squid harvested this year (as of March 31) had fallen 170 tons, or a total of 350 million yen, compared to last year.  

Nisimura added, “There were North Korean boats in the region in the past, but they suddenly increased in number last year. There were reports that came in June of last year that there were so many North Korean boats that the Japanese fishing boats could not fish” and that, “There are two issues [with North Korean fishing activities]: the first is that they use dragnet fishing methods that catch everything, even baby squid; the second is that their boats are so small they do not show up on radar.”

Nisimura expressed concern that Japanese and North Korean boats could collide with each other at night and this would cause the small and flimsy North Korean boats to capsize.

Sato Choichuro, a squid boat captain with 50 years experience who Daily NK met at the Sagata dock, expressed concern over the danger of collisions by saying that “North Korean boats have no electricity and have very dim lights. They depend on Japanese boats that have brighter lights, and move very close to Japanese boats to catch squid.”

He went fishing for squid last year, but said that “While I saw a North Korean fishing boat at the end of October last year, they were all wooden boats,” and that, “The number of North Korean boats has increased over the past three years, and last year I saw the most ever.”

Japanese fishermen have submitted a large number of complaints to the government, according to a PR representative at the Japan Coast Guard. The Japanese authorities are tightening control over entry into the EEZ by sending warning broadcasts to North Korean boats conducting illegal fishing activities and spraying infringers with high-pressure water jets. Authorities have plans to raise the frequency of patrols monitoring illegal fishing. The coast guard is preparing plans to respond to illegal fishing through legal means, including the seizure of offending vessels.

The fishermen that Daily NK met all agreed that the Japanese government needs to respond strongly to illegal fishing by North Korean boats in order to protect Japan’s sovereignty. The fishermen also expressed hope that the Japanese and North Korean authorities could negotiate a resolution to the issue.

“Japanese fishermen use methods to catch squid that help protect the environment, but North Korean fishermen use huge nets that catch everything, so there’s a danger that marine life will be depleted,” said Hariya Kachmi (70), a fisherman in Noto Peninsula with 40 years of fishing experience. “North Korean fishermen are fishing illegal in Japanese waters, so the authorities must come up with a response quickly.” He also added, however, that “The Japanese and North Korean governments should talk to each other to find a resolution that benefits both sides.” Another fishing boat captain with 50 years of experience, Yamagosi Dosikachu (71), added that, “The government must seize boats and take a hardline approach toward them, but I hope they can resolve the issue through dialogue and negotiations.”

Nisimura, at the Yamagata Prefecture Marine Cooperative, said that, “North Korean fishing boats may fish [in these waters] this year as well, so we are requesting the government to come up with a plan, but because the Japanese and North Korean governments have no official ties it seems difficult for them to find [an appropriate] response.” He also noted that, “the sea border between the two countries is unclear and perhaps when relations between the two improve in the future these issues will be resolved.”