Chinese fishing boats took half a billion dollars of illegal squid from North Korea. Scientists used satellites

New research used satellite technology, on-water observations and machine learning to track unreported vessels

Chinese fishing boats took half a billion dollars of illegal squid from North Korea. Scientists used satellites to catch them out

A “dark fleet” of hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels has illegally caught more than half a billion dollars worth of squid in North Korean waters since 2017, according to new research that used satellite technology, on-water observations and machine learning to track the unreported vessels. The illegal catch may have driven small North Korean fishing boats into dangerous waters and contributed to the sharp decline of the Japanese flying squid.

A global problem

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing is a global problem. It threatens fish stocks, marine ecosystems, and the livelihoods and food security of legitimate fishing communities worldwide. This kind of fishing is hard for governments to address, as it is often carried out by “dark fleets” of vessels that do not appear in public monitoring systems.

However, working with a team from Korea, Japan, Australia and the US, we’ve devised a new approach to tracking clandestine fishing. We used it to identify more than 900 vessels originating from China that fished illegally in North Korean waters in 2017, and more than 700 in 2018. The research is published today in Science Advances.


As Chinese vessels fish North Korean waters, North Korean boats move further north towards Russia. Global Fishing Watch

Sanctions and ghost boats

Chinese vessels have historically fished the waters adjacent to North Korea. However, in 2017 the UN Security Council adopted sanctions restricting North Korea’s fisheries and seafood trade in response to ballistic missile testing. The sanctions also prohibited North Korea from selling or transferring fishing rights.

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