Korea has long been bothered by illegal fishing by Chinese vessels in its seas. The increase in the number of Chinese boats illicitly entering the country’s exclusive economic zone amid the loosening surveillance following the April 16 ferry disaster has further exacerbated public sentiment here.
But Koreans have been largely unaware that their nation is also facing mounting international criticism for its involvement in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. The European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, is set to decide on whether to designate Korea an illegal fishing country by the end of next month. In November last year, Korea was placed along with Ghana and Curacao on the list of noncooperating countries pursuant to the commission’s regulations.
The final designation, which many experts here see as quite likely, would block exports of fisheries products produced or processed in Korea to EU member states and ban Korean fishing vessels from entering any European port. In January 2013, Korea was one of the 10 nations that U.S. fisheries authorities accused of engaging in IUU fishing.
Illegal fishing has in recent years come to be seen as a cause of serious economic and environmental damage on a global scale. Researchers estimate that illegal operations account for about 20 percent of the annual fish haul across the globe. The proportion rises to 40 percent in the sea off the West African coast, where many Korean fishing vessels operate. International efforts to curb IUU fishing continue to be strengthened as the practice mainly affects less-developed coastal countries, which lack effective means to protect their marine resources.
Being designated an illegal fishing country by the EU would result in additional losses for Korea’s fisheries industry. But the more serious consequence of the disgraceful status might be significant damage to the image the country has tried to build of a major economic and cultural powerhouse seeking to increase its contributions to the global community. Further international embarrassments may be the last thing Koreans want after their view that the country was close to joining the ranks of advanced nations was shattered by the ferry disaster, in which the ignorance of safety rules and poor rescue work resulted in the loss of more than 300 lives.
Though belated, the government has taken the right steps to strengthen regulations on illegal fishing, including enforcing stricter penalties and establishing a surveillance center to monitor operations by all Korean vessels in foreign waters. As some experts here note, there may be some questions that can be raised about the legality of the EU move. But Korea first needs to improve regulatory measures to match international standards in a clear and objective fashion. Then the country might be in a position to make an effective counterargument during international arbitration if the EU goes on to finally confirm its illegal fishing activities.