In recent years, autumn has marked territorial disputes between China and Japan. In 2014, the battle has shifted to illegal coral harvesting in Japanese waters.
Hundreds of fishing boats with Chinese markings have been spotted — often at close range — near islands stretching thousands of kilometers south of Tokyo over the past few months. Illegal coral harvesting is occurring in the subtropical, ecologically diverse Ogasawara and Bonin islands that make up a remote, sparsely populated archipelago that lies about 1,000 kilometers south Tokyo.
It's thought the boats are illegally harvesting red coral, which can be sold for thousands of dollars per kilogram.
— どですか (@goosaygo) November 14, 2014
However, the situation is also thought to have a deeper connection with the ongoing dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku islands to the west of Okinawa. While red coral may fetch high prices for fishermen, it still does not seem to make economic sense to send a boat all the way to the Ogasawara islands.
There are also suspicions the Chinese government has been giving tacit encouragement and assistance to the fleet of fishing trawlers in order to test Japan's response.
As well, in recent years the waters off of Taiwan, Korean and Japan has been witnessing an increasing number of maritime incidents involving Chinese fishermen.
While Japan is often considered a small, cramped country, in reality it stretches from far-flung territories such as the Ogasawara and Bonin islands in the far south, to remote islets far to the west of Okinawa Prefecture. The expansiveness of the country's maritime borders makes it difficult for Japan to assert its sovereignty and prevent overfishing.
One blogger who resides on one of the remote Bonin islands expressed frustration and despair about what is happening:
Suspicious boats have been observed in the Bonin Islands waters since around August… It seems they are illegally dragging for red coral which can be sold for high prices. However, when they drag for coral they snag everything off the seabed, including bottom fish, as well as other coral and rocks that make up the habitat, destroying everything.
Beautiful coral that has taken years for nature to create are being uprooted. The maritime ecosystem of the sea around the Bonin Islands is being destroyed.
It's thought that many of the fishing vessels collecting coral illegally in the sea around Japan originate in Xiangshan County in Zhejiang Province, China.
However, in the face of such a widespread problem, there are few tools and resources to deal with the problem.
はよ→ サンゴ密漁 安すぎる日本の罰金…大幅引き上げ検討 中国に防止策要求（産経新聞） http://t.co/BDJDU1FGET
— 崎村夏彦 (=nat) (@_nat) November 7, 2014
Fine for coral poaching, too cheap, debate underway to drastically increase penalties; request sent to China to take preventative measures.
(Yahoo! News / Sankei Shimbun) Government coalition partners discuss massive influx of illegal coral harvesters in seas off Ogasawara Islands.
The recent APEC summit in China provided an opportunity for Japan and China to address the problem. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe discussed the issue directly with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
— ウォール・ストリート・ジャーナル日本版 (@WSJJapan) November 12, 2014
Abe makes direct appeal to Xi about issue of illegal coral harvesting on.wsj.com/1xrDOyX (Reuters)
The dialogue between Abe and Xi, combined with increasing media coverage, seems to have paved the way for more aggressive efforts by the Japanese government to deal with the problem.
Indeed, following the APEC summit, even the American government strongly condemned illegal coral harvesting in Japanese territorial waters (starting at 00:00:35):
Coast guard vessels are now working at driving off and sometimes seizing the coral poachers. Since October, the captains of six vessels have been detained.
The talks between Abe and Xi, plus American support, have also allowed Japanese lawmakers and the Coast Guard to talk about even confiscating and destroying ships.
In terms of finding a longterm solution to the problem, there may be little the Chinese government can do to stop the problem quickly.
As online news magazine The Diplomat explains:
The relationship between the Chinese government and the fishermen is complicated. On the one hand, it is very difficult for the Chinese government to control and manage its fishermen and stop them from fishing illegally; on the other hand, fishermen do not always trust government officials. In the latest anti-corruption campaign in Hainan, a dozen officials from China’s fishery administration were arrested for stealing or appropriating fishermen’s fuel subsidies.
With no solution in sight, the helplessness and frustration of Japanese netizens has resulted in outrage and in black humor.
Earlier in November a powerful typhoon passing through the Ogasawara and Bonin Islands momentarily curtailed illegal coral harvesting, prompting a fairly popular meme on Twitter and elsewhere in social media:
— スイカ羊 (@suika_sheep) November 5, 2014
Perhaps this is a kamikaze “divine wind”? pic.twitter.com/a4dj3GEhBI