Diaoyu Islands fish are Chinese

By Yang Jingjie and Qiu Yongzheng in Zhejiang Source:Global Times Published: 2012-9-27 18:50:03

Fishing boats set sail from the port of Shipu, Xiangshan county,  Zhejiang Province, to fish off the Diaoyu Islands on September 16, after a fishing moratorium in the East China Sea ended. Photo: Qiu Yongzheng/GT
Fishing boats set sail from the port of Shipu, Xiangshan county, Zhejiang Province, to fish off the Diaoyu Islands on September 16, after a fishing moratorium in the East China Sea ended. Photo: Qiu Yongzheng/GT

At a busy pier in Zhoushan Islands, Zhejiang Province, deafening firecrackers and fireworks were set off and fishermen burned incense and paper ingots. With national flags flying at their masts, several fishing boats decorated with brightly colored banners sailed off to sea.

This is a ritual performed by fishermen to pray for safety and harvest before they set sail. After a fishing moratorium lasting over three months was lifted on September 16, such rituals have been performed across the coastal province every day, with fishermen hoping to return home fully loaded from their expeditions to the East China Sea.

The new fishing season started amid escalating tensions between China and Japan, which were stirred up by Tokyo's "nationalization" of the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. Fishermen in China's coastal provinces, who regard waters around the islets a traditional fishing area, suddenly came into the limelight.

According to a source from the local fishery management authority, some 70 fishing boats from Zhoushan headed to the Diaoyu Islands waters after the fishing ban was lifted.

Fishermen from other areas were also eager to set sail for the resource-rich waters, where Japan had blocked their activities.

Zhu Chengguo, a fisherman from Xiangshan county, Zhejiang Province, told the Global Times that before the end of the fishing moratorium, local authorities consulted with some veteran fishermen on whether they would like to return to these old stomping grounds. 

According to Zhu, almost all the fishermen responded positively, saying that they are willing to fish there if the authority can address their worries about the potential risks.

The Ministry of Agriculture Monday said on its website that since September 16, Chinese fishing boats had been operating orderly in the East China Sea. And nearly 200 fishing boats were in waters off the Diaoyu Islands.

Chu Yigen, manager of a fishery company in Taizhou, Zhejiang, told the Global Times Wednesday that 38 vessels of the company were operating in the East China Sea, and one of the ships was 60 nautical miles away from the islets, an eight hours sail by boat.

Traditional fishing grounds

According to the fishery department of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Diaoyu Island and its affiliated islets cover an area of 6.3 square kilometers, with a fishing area of 12,000 square kilometers.

The area teems with life such as cuttlefish, porgy, shrimp and crab. The yield of fishery resources exceeds 150,000 tons annually. More than 1,000 fishing boats from coastal provinces like Fujian and Zhejiang go to waters off the Diaoyu Islands every year.

Xu Jianxing, who used to be a fisherman in Zhoushan, told the Global Times that local fishermen fished in waters within 12 nautical miles of the Diaoyu Islands until the mid-1990s.

"We used to go fishing there in January and February. It took us a whole day and night to get to those waters, and we spent 10 to 15 days in the area before sailing back," Xu recalled. "We saw a lot of Chinese fishing boats there, most of them coming from Fujian and Taiwan."

"Our ship was very close to the Diaoyu Islands. It seemed that I could touch the islands by stretching my arms," said Xu, adding that back then, they never encountered Japanese law enforcement vessels in the waters.

The area also left Xu with a bitter memory. His father was buried at sea after losing his life in an accident near the islets.

Lin Huiliang, a veteran fisherman from Xiangshan, told the Global Times that the traditional fishing ground of Zhejiang fishermen is very close to the Diaoyu Islands, but now few fishing boats dare go within 12 nautical miles. "However, fishermen in the East China Sea have the capacity and the will to go fishing in the area," said Lin.

Nowhere to fish

Declining fishery resources close to shore and rising costs have prompted fishermen to sail to the resource-rich waters, despite facing potentially higher risks caused by the overlapping claims made by China and Japan.

Before 1996, the waters close to shore were abundant with fishery resources. However, overfishing and environmental degradation have left the area almost barren. Even the most experienced fishermen may come home empty-handed.

The fish left there are so small that some fishermen have to overlap two fishing nets, only leaving spaces for sand to sift through. The fish they net could only be produced into feed, which is hardly enough for them to make a profit.

Zhu has been in the trade for more than 20 years. As one of the most experienced fishermen in Xiangshan, Zhu said the rising costs have made the lives of fishermen much harder.

Zhu has two fishing boats, each of them worth 6.5 million yuan ($1 million). Even though he and his brothers and sisters joined together, they couldn't afford to build the ships. Given the fact that banks were reluctant to hand out loans to individuals, they had to borrow from loan sharks.

"I have to repay 800,000 yuan a year for interest," said Zhu.

The rising labor costs and fuel prices have also driven up overall operating costs. It takes 30,000 yuan for a 300-ton-class fishing boat to operate daily.

According to Lin, about 30 to 40 percent of the fishermen in Shipu, Xiangshan, lost money last year. If the government hadn't provided subsidies for diesel fuel, more fishermen would have suffered losses.

Frustrated by the hardships and low returns, Lin once changed careers and went into real estate development. However, due to the recession seen in the housing market in recent years, he had no choice but to return to the deck of a fishing ship.

Risky trip

The abundant fishery resources in waters off the Diaoyu Islands and the tough position against Japan taken by the government recently have motivated fishermen. After the fishing ban was lifted, a fleet of 30 boats from Xiangshan sailed toward the Diaoyu Islands. They were expected to operate in the area for 15 to 30 days.

Even though local fishermen were driven by the profits of fishing there, they had been cautious due to the presence of Japanese law enforcement vessels.

In recent years, Zhejiang and Fujian fishing boats always kept a safe distance from the islets while operating in the area for fears of harassment by the Japan Coast Guard (JCG).

A fisherman surnamed Qin from Zhoushan told the Global Times that sometimes they saw ships and helicopters of the JCG follow their boats. "We could see Japanese ships at day and night. They kept us away from the islets."

Fishermen from Taizhou, Zhejiang have been relatively bold in playing a cat-and-mouse game with Japanese vessels. They sometimes rushed to the waters when the JCG had their backs turned, and then darted away before the arrival of Japanese vessels.

The fishery authority also used to urge a cautious position. A Taizhou official, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Global Times that the fishery department watched closely the position of each fishing boat through GPS. Any time the authority saw some ships sail toward the islets, they would immediately call them back.

The fishermen would have to risk being arrested by Japan if they fished near Diaoyu waters. For them, the biggest concern would be Japan permanently seizing their ships, which would mean certain bankruptcy.

The fuel costs were another concern. According to a calculation by Xu, the diesel costs would top 120,000 yuan for a 10-day fishing trip to the islets by a single ship.

"One would rather do a business deal that may cost one's life than lose money," said Lin.

This sentiment was shared by most fishermen, who said they were willing to fish in the waters off the Diaoyu Islands if the government could protect their interests.

Lin voiced his hope that the government could roll out some favorable policies for them, similar to those put in place for their counterparts who sail to the South China Sea to address their worries of operating in disputed waters.

Successful model

The difference is that in the South China Sea, fishermen are organized to fish, while fishing fleets in the East China Sea are always formed voluntarily. Marine surveillance ships and fishery management vessels carry out routine escort missions to prevent fishing cruises from being disrupted by neighboring countries.

On April 10, 12 Chinese fishing boats berthed in the lagoon of Huangyan Island in the South China Sea to shelter from harsh weather conditions when a Philippine naval warship blocked the entrance to the lagoon. The Philippine vessel harassed the Chinese fishermen aboard the boats. China's marine surveillance vessels, Haijian-84 and Haijian-75, were sent to protect the Chinese fishermen, leading to a standoff with Philippine ships off Huangyan Island.

The standoff lasted for two months, with Manila finally pulling its vessels out in June.

According to Philippine media, two marine surveillance ships and a fishery management ship from China were still in the waters off Huangyan Island in early September.

The model in the South China Sea has boosted fishermen's confidence in sailing to the Diaoyu Islands.

Marine surveillance ships have carried out intensive patrol missions in waters around the islets as a countermeasure to Japan's unilateral move.


The Ministry of Agriculture said Monday that 10 fishery management vessels were in the waters of the islets on law enforcement missions and to protect the rights of Chinese fishing boats.


In addition to safety concerns, fishermen also expressed the hope that the government could provide them with additional diesel subsidies and set up a special fund to make up for the risk of losing their vessels. 

According to local fishermen, the government currently subsidizes them 1,700 yuan for every kilowatt consumed.

Having a wealth of experience in high sea fishing, fishermen in Zhejiang are full of confidence that they will net a good harvest if they get strong backing from the government.

Equipped with GPS, radar, various nets and real-time measurement and control devices, fishing boats with over 150 horsepower were anchored at their piers, waiting for permission to move.

According to Lin, in Shipu alone, there are about 2,000 such advanced fishing vessels.

For fishermen, fishing in the waters off the Diaoyu Islands is a matter of pride and profits. "Who wouldn't want to go?" asked Lin.

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