China has been blamed after hundreds of “ghost boats” – some containing the skeletons of North Korean fishermen – washed up along Japan’s coast in recent years.
More than 150 of the grim vessels were found last year alone, with almost 600 discovered in the past five years, a new investigation by NBC News and Global Fishing Watch (GFW) has found.
Last December, officials found the heads of two people and partially-skeletonised bodies of five on board a wooden “ghost ship” that landed on Japan’s Sado island
Japan’s coastguard says the bodies of more than 50 North Koreans have washed up on beaches over the past two years.
Based on satellite data, researchers claim China has sent a previously invisible armada of industrial boats to illegally fish in North Korean waters, violently displacing the smaller vessels and sending squid stocks plummeting.
After being muscled out of their usual territory, the desperate North Korean fishermen now have to risk their lives further out at sea in unsafe boats, which are battered by rough seas and not built to withstand the perilous journeys.
The Kim Jong-un regime is said to have placed greater pressure on them to increase catches amid food shortages in the secretive country.
In the last seven years, at least 50 surviors have been rescued, but they refused to answer most questions during interviews with Japanese police and demanded to be returned to North Korea.
The “dark fleets” of Chinese vessels do not publicly broadcast their location or appear in public monitoring systems, the Guardian reported.
Initially, the cause of the ghost boats in fishing grounds in the Sea of Japan, known in the Koreas as the East Sea, was a mystery.
It was thought climate change had forced the North Koreans to travel further from their shores to catch squid, resulting in them becoming stranded at sea and dying of starvation, hypothermia or dehydration.
Squid stocks have declined by more than 70%.
Many boats that wash up are found with no-one on board, leading to suspicions in Japan that they were carrying spies or even people who travelled there to deliberately spread a contagious disease.
In a report published in the journal Science Advances, GFW said more than 900 Chinese vessels fished illegally in the region in 2017, and 700 in 2018 – or about one-third of China’s entire distant-water fishing fleet.
It is estimated they caught more than 160,000 metric tonnes of squid, valued at more than £346 million.
GFW, a non-profit group that pushes for a transparent fishing industry, said China likely breached UN sanctions that prohibit foreign fishing in North Korea’s territorial waters.
It said about 3,000 North Korean vessels were forced to catch squid illegally in Russian waters in 2018.
Some broke down or ran out of fuel and were adrift before landing on Japan’s coastlines.
So many fisherman have disappeared at sea that some port towns are called “widows’ villages”.
Jungsam Lee, of the Korea Maritime Institute, told the Guardian: “Competition from the industrial Chinese trawlers is likely displacing the North Korean fishers, pushing them into neighbouring Russian waters.
“The North Koreans’ smaller wood boats are ill-equipped for this long-distance travel.”
Jaeyoon Park, a data scientist from Global Fishing Watch, told NBC News: “This is the largest known case of illegal fishing perpetrated by a single industrial fleet operating in another nation’s waters.”
A spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the TV station that “China has consistently and conscientiously enforced the resolutions of the Security Council relating to North Korea”, and it has “consistently punished” illegal fishing.
It did not admit or deny sending its boats into North Korean waters.