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The trawlers often leave Chinese fishing ports under the cover of night but it is too dangerous to operate in the same areas as the Chinese so they are forced to sail for hundreds of miles to reach Japanese or Russian waters.
It is too dangerous for them to work in the same waters as the Chinese trawlers
More than 150 of the wooden vessels were found washed ashore last year alone. Some were wrecks containing skeletons while some were intact but empty and a few carried silent survivors.
Officials said all were North Korean and Japanese authorities presumed they were either poverty-stricken fishermen who had sailed too far in search of a catch or defectors from Kim Jong-un’s hermit state
But evidence has now emerged of an anonymous “Dark Fleet” operating from North Korean waters.
A study from Global Fishing Watch published in the journal Science Advances this week highlights a fleet of trawlers with their identity and location transponders turned off operating in the Sea of Japan.
North Korea, South Korea, Russia and Japan all have ownership claims on the waters which makes policing the area diplomatically dangerous risk.
But now the the “Dark Fleet’s” shadowy presence is being illuminated by modern technology, according to a study by Australia’s University of Wollongong.
Study co-author Jaeyoon Park said: “By synthesising data from multiple satellite sensors, we created an unprecedented, robust picture of fishing activity in a notoriously opaque region.
“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.”
The trawlers were detected leaving Chinese harbours and then tracked as they sailed through the Korea Strait and started operating in North Korean waters.
University of Wollongong associate professor Quentin Hanich said: “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.
“This analysis represents the beginning of a new era in ocean management and transparency.
“Global fisheries have long been dominated by a culture of unnecessary confidentiality and concealment.”
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Jungsam Lee, an author of the report from Global Fishing Watch, warned North Korean vessels taking a chance in unfamiliar foreign waters would have proved disastrous for dozens of the country’s fishermen.
He said: “It is too dangerous for them to work in the same waters as the Chinese trawlers.
“That’s why they’re pushed to work in Russian and Japanese waters and that explains why some of North Korea’s damaged vessels showed up on the beaches of Japan.”
Beijing is increasingly asserting its unilateral territorial claim to almost the entirety of the East and South China seas.
Earlier this year, that claim reached as far south as Indonesia – with a Chinese fishing fleet supported by navy-controlled coast guard vessels intruding on Natuna island.
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