One sticky issue that has haunted Korea for the past two years is now being put to rest. Almost simultaneously, Washington and Brussels are scratching off Korea from the list of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing countries.
Since the designation was made in 2013, a pan-governmental scramble has been on to delist Korea. And these frantic efforts are now paying off. Remaining on the list would have meant import restrictions for fisheries products and port visit restrictions for Korean-flagged vessels, both of which would be an unbearable penalty for the country.
Even more damaging would have been the tarnished image as a country condoning illegal fishing, by far the No. 1 culprit for global fishing stock depletion.
In accordance with the requests from the two countries, Korea’s Ocean Industries Development Act has been amended twice so that strong penalties are now imposed on fishermen who break the rules.
The Vessel Monitoring System has become mandatory, and fisheries monitoring centers have been set up. Starting from July this year, criminal sanctions will become harsher for violators ― punishable with imprisonment of up to five years or a minimum fine of 500 million won ($450,000).
In exchange for this statutory change, Korea is now being taken off the list.
The fault, of course, is Korea’s own. Korea has been slow to respond to the growing demands of the international community to regulate illegal fishing activities. Loose statutes had loopholes. Its vessels were caught fishing illegally off the coast of West Africa. It was only after Korea was put on the list of illegal fishing countries that it realized the seismic consequences of the designation.
To cut a long story short, the two countries’ joint push has herded Korea in the right direction. Good medicine is always bitter.
On a separate note, it is unfortunate that import restrictions and port visit prohibitions ― actions themselves arguably in contravention of obligations under various international treaties ― have been proposed by these countries to pile on the pressure.
Unilateral sanctions, if imposed, would hardly survive the tightly knit web of treaties these days, including free trade agreements. But the legalese has been overshadowed by the mounting consensus on the need to do whatever it takes to curb illegal fishing. At any rate, the problem has been resolved and everybody is happy now.
In retrospect, the warning signs had been there for some time. If actions to counter illegal fishing had been taken earlier, Korea would not have found itself on the list in the first place. Efforts and political capital could have been spared. Taking action only in the face of sanctions was poor behavior.
This hard-earned lesson should guide Korea to take a more active approach on the issue of sustainable fishing. Illegal fishing is not the end of the story, but just one of the many pending issues of the global discourse of sustainable fishing. The illegal fishing regulation was the easiest target of all these. Many more will be brought up soon in different forms through different forums. Not only enhanced criminal sanctions but also termination of governmental support for the fishing industry and fishermen is seriously being contemplated.
The global fishing regulations are going through a big change and require governments to carry out many new tasks. In light of this, the two-year saga was a shot in the arm. This should be the first step for Korea to spend more time and resources to ensure responsible fishing activities within its jurisdiction.
Sustainable fishing is needed for our benefit and for that of our fishermen. Over the Lunar New Year holiday, KBS broadcast a documentary showing the efforts of Korean fishermen in coastal villages to detect and deter illegal fishing on their own to preserve the fish stocks in their waters. They do not know the scientific, diplomatic or legal discussions surrounding illegal fishing activities, but they do know that this is the only way to preserve the fish stocks for themselves and for the next generation.
By Lee Jae-min
Lee Jae-min is an associate professor of law at Seoul National University. ― Ed.