Coral poaching by Chinese fishing boats in waters around the Ogasawara Islands has been rapidly increasing.
Earlier this month, nearly 50 such vessels were spotted in the area, where they were believed to be searching for valuable red coral and other "jewelry coral" that inhabit the deep sea. Catches of such jewelry coral are regulated in China.
The Japan Coast Guard has been cracking down on coral poaching by Chinese fishing boats, some of which have entered Japanese territorial waters or Japan's exclusive economic zone.
Few such ships were spotted on ocean waters earlier this year, according to the JCG. But since September, the number of Chinese fishing boats in such areas has surged, with confirmed sightings of at least 46 such vessels as of Oct. 13.
The boats are believed to have started coming because the seas are calm at this time.
The coral live 100 meters or more below the sea surface and are commonly used in jewelry in China. Red coral is traded for 6 million yen (S$70,823) per kilogram.
According to the JCG, Chinese fishing boats have been poaching coral mainly in the East China Sea near Okinawa Prefecture.
It is possible that they moved to waters around the Ogasawara Islands because law enforcement in the waters near Okinawa Prefecture was strengthened, the JCG said.
The JCG has stepped up security by introducing several large patrol vessels. On Oct. 5, it arrested the captain of a Chinese fishing boat that entered Japan's territorial waters, which extend up to 22 kilometers from the coastal and territorial lands of Japan, on suspicion of violating the law on regulation of fishing operation by foreign nationals.
On Oct. 16, another Chinese captain was arrested for operating a vessel within Japan's exclusive economic zone, an area stretching about 370 kilometers from Japan's shoreline.
However, with about 30 fishing boats still cruising in the surrounding sea areas, JCG patrol vessels have been keeping a round-the-clock watch on how close the ships come to Japan's territorial waters.
Apparently aiming to expand the nation's maritime rights and interests, Chinese government vessels and fishing boats have repeatedly intruded into Japanese territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture.
Concerning the recent moves near the Ogasawara Islands, JCG Commandant Yuji Sato said they could be based on a different motive from those regarding the Senkaku Islands. "They're operating illegally to make a quick profit," Sato said.
A senior JCG official said: "These fishing boats flee whenever our patrol vessels approach, but as soon as we lower the alert level, they return to the waters. We have no choice but to continue cracking down on them under special security arrangements."
JCG watches suspicious vessel
From 3 p.m. Tuesday, Japan Coast Guard patrol vessel Shikishima was keeping watch on a suspicious fishing boat in waters about 30 kilometers northwest of Chichijima island in the Ogasawara chain.
The rust-coloured boat could be seen through a camera's telescopic lens, but there were no signs of anyone moving around on board, or of fishing or other equipment.
There was no national flag visible, but the JCG believes the boat was from a group of Chinese fishing vessels that remained on the ocean waters surrounding the Ogasawara Islands.
The boat was only about 10 kilometers away from Japan's territorial waters. The JCG has been tightening security in the area to prevent Chinese vessels from intruding, and the Shikishima appeared to be observing the fishing boat while maintaining a distance.
More Chinese fishing vessels are expected to enter the ocean area after the typhoon season ends and the sea becomes calmer. The standoff between JCG patrol vessels and Chinese fishing boats likely will continue for some time to come.