Fishing nets thought to have been left behind by Chinese fishing boats that engaged in illegal poaching of so-called jewelry coral in waters near Tokyo's remote Ogasawara Islands have become a major impediment for local fishermen. Fishhooks used by the fishermen frequently get snagged in the derelict fishing nets, but there is no way of knowing how many such nets litter the sea bottom at depths of 100 meters or more. The bountiful waters continue to suffer the consequences of illegal activities in the area.
"I thought it was a catch, but soon found out it was a fishing net! I was disappointed, of course," said Takashi Kanazawa, a local fisherman in his early 40s.
On May 13, when Kanazawa was out fishing off Chichijima island for ruby snappers, he felt a sudden jerk on his fishing rod, only to find that what he had caught was a small fishing net. This happened twice again the following day, leaving him with an unsatisfying haul.
Fishing rods are preferred by local fishermen, and fishing nets are seldom used. In contrast, the Chinese fishing boats that swarmed the area last autumn attached heavy weights to their fishing nets to drag them along the seabed and totally uproot the corals they were aiming to steal.
The local fishermen's cooperative thinks these nets were dumped into the ocean by Chinese boats when Japan Coast Guard vessels approached them or under other circumstances. The cooperative started collecting the nets in December as "proof of poaching," and now has 24 of them stacked up in a vacant lot next to its office building. The largest ones are about a meter wide and about 16 meters long.
When snagged in an abandoned net, fishhooks tend to break or the line is severed. The Chinese boats have since vanished. Yoshiyasu Takase, a board member of the cooperative in his late 40s, was visibly upset when he said: "It's been four months since they stopped coming to this area, but the grave impact on local fishing is still there. It really breeds resentment."
A survey conducted by the Fisheries Agency with the help of a remotely controlled unmanned vehicle found that 381 fishing nets had been discarded at 10 locations underwater within an area of just 0.35 square kilometers. Most of them are entangled on rock reefs at a depth of about 200 meters. Based on the characteristics of the mesh, its colour and other features, the agency thinks they were used by the Chinese boats.
Colonies of corals exist in waters 20 kilometers off Chichijima island, in an area exceeding 1,000 square kilometers. "The fishing nets we've found are only the tip of the iceberg. We can't even imagine how many nets are actually out there," said an agency official.
What's more, the costs for conducting the survey amounted to about ¥130 million. Costs would run higher if they were to collect the discarded fishing nets. The official admits that collecting all the nets is virtually impossible.
Most of the roughly 40 local fishermen have suspended operations in nearby waters where the fishing nets were found and go on excursions to waters 100 to 150 kilometers offshore. They sometimes have to spend two or three nights to complete what would otherwise be a one-day job. Some fishing boats are forced to make three times as many overnight excursions compared to last year.
Some fishermen also fear the discarded nets might scare the fish away from their fishing grounds. Katsuhiko Ishii, the vice president of the cooperative, says the fuel needed to maintain operations in more distant waters is costly, and he is concerned that "negative effects will extend to the next generation."
Poaching of 'jewelry coral'
Intrusions by Chinese fishing boats into waters near the Ogasawara Islands and other areas to engage in illegal poaching of highly prized ornamental corals dubbed "jewelry coral."
The Chinese boats started to appear in September last year, but have not been seen since January 23. During this time, the Japan Coast Guard arrested a total of 11 Chinese skippers and others from 10 boats. One skipper testified in court that he had become involved in illegal poaching because he was told "corals were sold at high prices on the black market."
As a countermeasure, the Japanese government revised laws to raise the maximum fine on unauthorized fishing by foreigners in exclusive economic zones to ¥30 million. The JCG is still on alert in the affected areas.