Takashi Shibazaki, 31, a fisherman based on Chichijima about 1,000 km south of Tokyo, saw a suspicious foreign boat in mid-March near the island.

Shibazaki’s tuna fishing boat approached the ship and came within about 10 meters before the foreign vessel started moving toward the high seas.

That was only the beginning. Throughout the month, many local fishermen saw similar foreign ships, each apparently weighing 100 to 200 tons, near Chichijima, which is part of the Ogasawara Islands and is under the jurisdiction of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

In April, local fishermen saw dozens of such ships, which they believe are Chinese poachers illegally fishing precious corals from the sea bottom, using fishing nets specially designed for the purpose.

By the end of October, the number of Chinese vessels observed in the area had swelled to about 100, and another 100 were seen near the Izu Islands, another chain in the Pacific closer to Japan’s mainland.

Many of the vessels openly fly the Chinese flag. The crews look relaxed and are not afraid of Japan Coast Guard ships, Shibazaki told The Japan Times in a phone interview.

“The reaction of the Coast Guard was very slow. . . . (Additional ships) would not have been dispatched unless media reported about the Chinese ships,” Shibazaki said.

Now the Chinese poaching ships off the Ogasawara and Izu islands have become one of hottest news topics in Japan, with video of them being aired repeatedly by TV stations over the past week.

Many Japanese people are apparently frustrated about the brazen poaching, prompting the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Thursday to adopt a resolution calling on the central government to take decisive action to crack down on the practice and file a strong protest with the Chinese government.

Prices of precious coral, in particular red corals, have reportedly skyrocketed recently, while coral fishing near the Chinese coasts have been banned by Beijing.

In recent years, this has prompted some Chinese fishermen to travel hundreds of kilometers to waters near Okinawa to poach corals from the seabed, and the poachers now appear to have reached as far as Ogasawara.

Japanese fishermen are deeply concerned because large-scale coral fishing could greatly damage the environment for fish and other marine creatures and hurt local fishing industries.

“Fish are driven away and their living environment will be lost. If this situation continues, our catches could drastically fall in, say, several years,” Shibazaki said.

Some Japanese experts suspect the Chinese government may informally support the poaching, as the number of such vessels has surged recently, as Tokyo and Beijing have been engaged in behind-the-scene negotiations to set conditions for a possible meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Xi Jinping next week.

Yoshihiko Yamada, a professor at Tokai University and a noted expert on maritime security, estimated that the round-trip journey of a fishing boat from the Chinese coast to the Ogasawa Islands is about 5,000 km and would likely cost about ¥3 million. He doubts coral fishing so far away from China would make economic sense without some form of government assistance.

“No poaching ships would show off the Chinese national flag, and show off their existence to local fishermen. (The Chinese) government may have played a role or at least gave tacit approval (to the poaching). That’s one possibility,” he said.Yamada suspects that Beijing may have helped send those poaching ships to see how the Japan Coast Guard would react and put indirect pressure on Japan to make compromises on territorial issues concerning the Senkaku Islands.

Indeed, the dispatch of hundreds of Chinese fishing boats to take control of the disputed Senkakus is one of the scenarios that Japanese defense officials have been grappling with.

In 1978, hundreds of Chinese fishing boats — many of them armed with weapons — approached the Senkakus to protest against Japan claim to them.

At that time, Tokyo and Beijing were engaging in negotiations to conclude a treaty to normalize bilateral relations after the end of World War II.

The ships were believed to have been dispatched by the Chinese government to put pressure on Japan to strike a compromise over islets during the 1978 negotiations.

“(This time,) China may have confirmed that Japan’s Coast Guard would be helpless if numerous fishing boats are dispatched to the Senkakus. (Beijing) may be implying that Japan should respond to (territorial) talks with China if it doesn’t want to see a similar situation” in the sea around the Senkakus, Yamada said.

Nozomu Iwasaki, a professor at Rissho University and an expert on coral studies, has a different opinion. Given the high market prices for precious corals, traveling far from the Chinese coast does make economic sense for Chinese fishermen to come as far as to the Ogasawara chain, he argued.

According to the Japan Coral Association, the average price for top-class red coral in Japan was about ¥6 million per kilogram this year.

Such high prices would be enough to cover the cost of a poacher if they ever succeeded in catching some coral far from home, Iwasaki said.

He pointed out that China, through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, has asked other countries to cooperate to protect precious corals near the Chinese coast and to ban domestic coral fishing.

Thus Beijing would have a difficult time rejecting a request from Japan to help protect coral in Japan’s territorial waters or exclusive economic zones, Iwasaki said.

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