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The Peninsula

Sushi Wars

Published September 28, 2012

By Jessica Choi

A few days ago, I went to my friend’s favorite local Japanese sushi bar for the first time, and I noticed that there was bulgogi (Korean beef bbq) on the menu.  My interest was piqued, so I decided to try speaking Korean to the waitress.  Lo and behold, it turns out that the restaurant was owned and operated by a Korean-American family.

As a Korean-American I was amused, because I’ve been to many sushi restaurants in California that are run by Korean-Americans, but I was surprised to come across one in the Washington, D.C. area.  As I chatted with the waitress, she told me her family hopped on the sushi bandwagon, because there has been an explosion in demand for sushi.  I came to discover this local sushi story was part of a global trend that has had effects that go way beyond Japanesethemed restaurants.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), world per capita consumption of fishery products has nearly doubled between 1961 and 2010.[1]  Asia, as a continent, has the overall highest consumption of seafood.  For insular or coastal countries with high population density such as those in Northeast Asia (China, Japan, the two Koreas, and Taiwan), seafood is a primary source of protein.

China is the world’s largest importer and exporter of fishery products.  Rising disposable income and a growing urban population are contributing to the growing appetite for seafood in China.  In 2010, Chinese imports of fishery products increased by $1.1 billion in just one year.  Japan is the second largest consumer of fishery products, while South Korea and Taiwan do not trail far behind.

With regard to both production and consumption, Northeast Asian countries play a leading role in the international trade of seafood.  Figures from an industry report show that seven of the ten biggest trade routes in the world for fishery products begin or end in Northeast Asia.[2]

The rising demand for fishery products has led to an alarming decline of coastal fisheries, which has been driving fishermen out to international waters far from their homelands.  This has raised the risk of confrontations in disputed international waters, which in turn, has led to the escalation of fishing incidents in recent years that continue to stir diplomatic tensions among countries in the Asia-Pacific region,

The latest episode in a series of maritime disputes occurred this past May, when Chinese crewmen accused of illegally fishing in the Yellow Sea were taken captive by North Korean authorities.  Yes, even allies can hit a rough patch.

A two-month naval standoff between China and the Philippines was triggered in April, when the Philippine Coast Guard came across Chinese fishing vessels in contested waters of the South China Sea.  This illustrates that the “risk of conflict in the South China Sea is significant,” warns Bonnie Glaser, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) based in Washington, D.C.

In a separate incident in December 2011, a clash between South Korean authorities and the captain of a Chinese fishing boat took place.  After the Chinese boat was stopped for illegally fishing in South Korea’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), it resulted in the death of a member of the South Korean Coast Guard.

In September 2010, Japan’s detention of a Chinese fishing captain for colliding into a Japanese Coast Guard vessel led to an intense diplomatic confrontation between China and Japan.

These and other examples highlight the critical problem of illegal fishing as an instigating factor of conflict in the Asia-Pacific region.  While each incident involves different countries and different factual circumstances, a review of the skirmishes as a whole shows that three types of security are threatened by fish stock depletion and clashes over aquatic resources: food security, economic security, and maritime security.

The first thing to remember when thinking about the concept of food security is that when people get hungry, they might become prone to actions that might disrupt the security of a nation or region.  And, because about 4.3 billion people depend on fish for about 15% of their animal protein intake,[3] overfishing could result in a lack of sufficient fish protein, which could leave a lot of people hungry – and angry.

A growing world population combined with income increases will mean more people wanting and needing fish as part of their diets, which will exacerbate the global food security issues even more.  “With such dependency on fish meeting a rapidly growing population, we simply cannot sustain a situation where 87 per cent of global marine fisheries are at or above full exploitation” said Alfred Schumm, Leader of World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) global Smart Fishing Initiative.

Economic security is also threatened by the situations that have resulted in fishermen’s skirmishes in international waters.  This is because fishery products are important contributors to the economies of the Asia-Pacific region.

East Asia alone produces over 50% of the world’s fishery yields, consisting of 45% of global wild catch, 90% of global aquaculture (farmed seafood), and 60% of global freshwater catch.[4]    However, the FAO’s 2012 annual report on the State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (SOFIA) estimates that 57% of fishery resources are fully exploited, while 30% are over-exploited.[5]

The report also pointed out the importance of the fisheries and aquaculture industry in providing employment opportunities and in supporting the livelihoods of about 12% of the world’s population.[6]  Some 55 million people around the world depend on this industry for their income.[7]  Further heightening the difficulties facing fishermen is that the trade of illegally caught aquatic resources “disrupt[s] the market and distort competition by putting legitimate fishers and fish farmers at a disadvantage.”  Therefore, higher standards of rules and regulations in conjunction with strict enforcement are necessary for combating overfishing and poaching, which has been a priority concern in many areas of the Asia-Pacific.

Fishing skirmishes can easily escalate into full-blown national disputes, as some of the examples above illustrate.  Many disputes over maritime boundaries in Asia originate from unsettled maritime territorial claims, so the increasingly fierce competition and demand for marine resources has caused an intensification of conflict in the Asia-Pacific region.

Though China’s maritime feuds have headlined global news, such conflicts do not only occur between China and its neighbors, but also amongst other Asian nations.  For example, tensions between Japan and South Korea were renewed after President Lee Myung-bak’s abruptly visited Dokdo/Takeshima[8] (a small group of islets in the East Sea) just last month.  In addition, even ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries clamor amongst themselves over South China Sea’s islands.  Nevertheless, China seems to have its hands full in terms of ongoing maritime disputes.

Asian countries recognize that small incidents could become major ones, so the diplomatic community is starting to take proactive steps.  For example, after the December 2011 incident between China and South Korea, South Korea invited China and Japan to multilateral discussions to address the problem of illegal fishing before any further incidents made such negotiations more difficult.  However, the negotiations resulted in a non-binding agreement where fishing vessels would voluntarily participate in routine inspections while operating in international waters.

With such a high density of the world’s population competing for decreasing resources, international cooperation and engagement will become increasingly important foundations for ensuring regional security.  Governments, fisheries, and ultimately even consumers of seafood products, will need to consider if an agreement without legal force will effectively address the issue at hand.  Such weak agreements lacking strong commitments will only further erode food security and increase the potential for conflict.

Jessica Choi is a master’s degree candidate at American University’s School of International Service and Korea University’s Graduate School of International Studies. The views expressed here are her own.

Photo from WWF France’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.


[1] United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO): The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, 2012

[2] Rabobank: The South Korean Seafood Industry Report, 2006

[3] United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO): The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, 2012

[4] Rabobank: East Asia Seafood Industry Report, 2007

[5] United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO): The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, 2012

[6] “”

[7] “”

[8] Dokdo is administered by the Republic of Korea.

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