ISHIGAKI, Okinawa Pref. — Fishermen from Ishigaki Island in Okinawa, which has jurisdiction over the Senkaku Islands, have called on the central government to deal with the increasing presence of Taiwanese fishing boats in nearby waters, which they say threaten their safety and livelihood.
Ishigaki islanders have also been largely perplexed by the escalation in tensions between Tokyo and Beijing following the Sept. 7 run-in involving a Chinese trawler and Japan Coast Guard ships near the Senkakus. The incident exacerbated a long-standing spat over the chain of five tiny uninhabited islets, which are claimed by both China and Taiwan.
Located 170 km southeast of the Senkaku powder keg, Ishigaki’s fishermen often venture near the uninhabited islets to catch tuna, bonito and snapper.
But they say a recent rise in demand for fish in Taiwan has resulted in a surge in Taiwanese fishing boats in the area south of the Senkakus, raising chances of trouble, including entangled nets and damaged equipment as well as collisions.
Although fishing vessels from mainland China now operate north of the Senkakus and do not get into trouble with Ishigaki fishermen, they are concerned that more Chinese trawlers will venture farther south in search of high-grade fish.
Kameichi Uehara, head of the Yaeyama fisheries cooperative on Ishigaki, which is closer to Taiwan than Okinawa Island, said local fishermen are at a loss whenever trouble arises because the Senkakus are not covered by the current Japan-China fisheries pact and Japan and Taiwan don’t even have a treaty.
“It would be desirable if fishing rules are clearly set for the area near the Senkakus, but the authorities have left the situation ambiguous because of territorial claims” by China and Taiwan, Uehara said.
“If it is difficult to make clear-cut rules in the near future, we call on the central government to beef up monitoring activities to detect illegal fishing by foreign vessels and ensure safe operations of Japanese fishing boats,” he said.
The Japan Coast Guard and the Fisheries Agency regularly patrol the area, but waters near the Senkakus have become increasingly tense with the increase in Taiwanese vessels, according to Uehara and other Ishigaki fishermen.
“Even though Japan says the Senkakus are an integral part of its territory, the government has been wishy-washy,” he said.
“Japan can prove its effective rule over the islands by making sure its nationals benefit from fishing resources near the Senkakus, but the government has not taken sufficient measures.”
Yoshikazu Nakada, a 47-year-old tuna fisherman from Ishigaki who operates near the Senkakus, said his catches have decreased due to a rise in the number of Taiwanese fishing boats in the sea. The business overall has meanwhile been hit hard by recent surges in fuel prices, he added.
Nakada, whose grandfather worked at a dried bonito factory that used to operate on Uotsurishima, the largest of the five Senkaku Islands, is alarmed that the lack of fishing rules governing Japan, Taiwan and China near the islets could lead to overfishing.
“With 1.3 billion people to feed, the demand for fish in China is certain to jump. Currently, there are even Taiwanese fishing vessels with crews from mainland China” operating south of the Senkakus, Nakada said.
He expects that the crews from mainland China on Taiwanese boats will accumulate fishing knowhow and serve on Chinese vessels that could advance to southern waters in a few years.
Following the September collisions involving the Chinese trawler and the coast guard cutters, and subsequent heightened Japan-China tensions over the islands, which are known in China as Diaoyu and in Taiwan as Tiaoyutai, the city of Ishigaki has urged Tokyo to allow Mayor Yoshitaka Nakayama and assembly members to visit the Senkakus and bolster surveillance.
The central government leases plots of land on the islands from private owners and restricts landings on the Senkakus.
Around the turn of the 20th century, entrepreneur Tatsushiro Koga ran a bonito processing operation on the islands with more than 200 workers. His business failed by around 1940 and the islands were eventually deserted. People linked to Koga’s descendants now technically own the land plots.
An Ishigaki official, who declined to be named, said the central government has prevented the municipal government in recent years from directly inspecting the islands for property tax assessment or research on ecosystems.
Since the 1972 reversion of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty from U.S. control, which put the Senkakus under the control of Ishigaki, no mayor of the city has made an official visit to the islets, according to the official.
Because the islands are not equipped with port facilities, Ishigaki fishermen can’t seek shelter there in the event of bad weather, leaving them in danger.
He said the central government should take steps to support those fishermen who can’t land on the islands even in emergencies and whose catches are in decline as they refrain from venturing into troubled waters.
“We are frustrated because as a local government, we can’t engage in matters that could have diplomatic ramifications,” the official said, urging the central government to be more responsible for the management of the Senkaku Islands.