A growing number of Chinese trawlers have started to fish illegally in Korean territorial waters, taking advantage of the Korea Coast Guard's focus on search efforts after the ferry disaster off the southwest coast.
Coast guards had been trying to crack down on illegal Chinese fishing off the west coast with 79 cutters working in three shifts every day. But 44 of the cutters have been deployed to the scene of the ferry disaster since since April 16 and it is virtually impossible for the remaining 35 cutters to effectively patrol the region.
As a result, the waters around Yeonpyeong and Baeknyeong islands off the coast of Incheon have turned into a virtual no-man's land. With the crab-fishing season in full swing, around 100 Chinese trawlers travel in groups, casting their nets illegally inside Korea's waters every day.
There have been no seizures of Chinese fishing boats this season, although the Korea Coast Guard usually seizes five or six illegal Chinese fishing boats at this time of year.
Kim Wan-ho (67), the captain of a fishing boat based in the southwestern port city of Mokpo, said, "There are hundreds of illegal Chinese fishing boats near Heuksan Island," off the southwest coast," but there are no patrol ships to stop them."
Korea and China signed a fishing pact that allows 1,600 Chinese trawlers to operate inside Korea's Exclusive Economic Zone each year, and about 500 of them usually trespass into Korean territorial waters. But this season the number has climbed to around 800.
Kim said, "This is blatant theft of our marine resources. I worry that the Chinese trawlers will deplete fish stocks."
An official at the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperatives said, "From January to April last year, W82.6 billion worth of fish were sold in markets in Mokpo, but this year, the amount fell to W37 billion due to illegal Chinese fishing boats (US$1=W1,022)."