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Fishing Tuna In Overlapping EEZ’s: Tricky Business


Trucks loaded with headless frozen tuna carcasses speed down the waterfront as trading starts at Donggang fish market in southern Taiwan

Less than an hour after dawn, dozens of colorfully painted small boats are unloading their holds after weeks spent fishing in the South China Sea.
Business is brisk. The captains of the boats can look forward to good prices for catches, but a heady mix of regional nationalism and the scramble for natural resources is making their work more difficult and dangerous.
The fishermen work on the front line of Asia’s growing number of territorial conflicts between nations asserting their often conflicting claims to the rich resources of the region’s seas. For Taiwan, over which China claims sovereignty, solving those conflicting claims is tricky, as none of its neighbors officially recognizes or deals directly with the government in Taipei.
“Countries recognize their territorial waters as the extension of their authority,” said Tsai Pao Hsing, head of the fishermen’s association in Xiao Liu Qiu, an island near Donggang market. “There’s more risk of being caught when you fish in overlapping waters.”
Rising nationalism has made those conflicts fiercer and more likely that a small scrap between fishermen can escalate into a larger diplomatic crisis.
The death of a Taiwanese fisherman, shot and killed by a Philippines maritime patrol in May, triggered a stand-off between Manila and Taipei with both claiming he was fishing in their respective territory. The government in Taipei, battling low approval ratings, reacted vehemently to the perceived threat to its sovereignty with military drills in the region and a recall of its representative from Manila.
The Taiwanese government does not encourage fishermen to go into the controversial waters, it says, but, like virtually every other country in the area, it is assertive in claiming ownership of those disputed waters. China, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam are all fighting over a series of small islands and the rights to the resources off their shores.
In the neighboring East China Sea, a dispute over the ownership of the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu in China, sparked a boycott of Japanese goods in China and Taiwan that cost manufacturers millions.
“The border hasn’t been drawn clearly in the overlapping waters, so we can’t figure out where to fish,” said Captain Tsai Yun Ming, who brought in four of the giant Bluefin tunas auctioned off in Donggang. While some foreign observers say the Taiwanese are known occasionally to fish in other countries’ waters, the uncertainty over where one territory starts and another ends also leads to poaching of fish stocks.
In previous years, fishermen in Donggang had fewer problems when working near the Philippines border, said Mr. Tsai of the fisheries association, but that has changed.
Part of the reason, he believes, is that nations such as the Philippines have realized the value of the fish the Taiwanese are catching.
For the island nation of Taiwan, fishing is an important industry, particularly for the small towns near ports such as Donggang.
The giant bluefin tuna brought into the port during the spring tuna season, each weighing hundreds of kilograms, can sell for upwards of $30 a kilo for the best fish.
The annual catch of Taiwanese deep-sea fisheries, far away from coastal areas, is worth about NT$40bn ($1.3bn), with another NT$13bn in revenue from related industries.
Donggang alone handled a catch worth more than $100m in 2010, the most recent year for which government statistics are available. Last year, agriculture, including fishing, accounted for just under 2 percent of Taiwan’s overall economy.
Part of the reason Taiwanese fishermen push into disputed areas is they consider them Taiwan’s traditional fishing grounds from the years before Asia’s borders were drawn, and policed. But they are also being hit by the rising global demand for fish, at a time when overfishing has depleted stocks.
Rising demand means greater competition on the waters, much of it from better equipped Japanese and US fishing vessels, which has pushed fishermen farther out and some are inevitably straying into neighbors’ grounds. The quantity of Bluefin tuna caught by Taiwanese boats has fallen more than tenfold since 2000, says Mr. Tsai of the fisheries association.
Hong Shen-hui, a captain in Xiao Liu Qiu, spent months in prison in the Philippines after he was arrested in what he called a disputed area. He was released but the authorities confiscated his boat after they failed to reach agreement on how much he needed to pay to take it back, he said.