A throng of Chinese fishing boats have been spotted poaching red coral in the waters around the Ogasawara Islands since mid-September. Japan and China should work together to resolve this problem. Doing so could serve as a first concrete step toward repairing bilateral relations that have deteriorated over the dispute concerning the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

The number of Chinese ships — apparently from Fujian Province — operating in the waters around the Ogasawara Islands and near the southern part of the Izu Islands peaked at 212 on Oct. 30. As of Nov. 19, 44 Chinese fishing boats were still inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone around the Ogasawara Islands. Unauthorized fishing inside the EEZ of another country is a criminal act.

Strong demand among wealthy Chinese for jewelry and ornaments made out of red coral has caused the price to rise sharply in China. A type of red coral known as “ox blood” is being sold for 10,000 yuan (or roughly ¥190,000) per gram in specialty stores in Shanghai. The red coral that the poachers take from Japan’s EEZ is sold to traders in China for an estimated 500,000 yuan (roughly ¥9.5 million) per kilogram.

The poachers drop nets with weight attached to the sea bottom and wait for the current to draw coral into the nets. Along with the coral they also snare valuable fish such as queen snappers and groupers.

In a 2010 meeting in Qatar on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or the Washington Convention as it is popularly known, the United States and some other countries called for controlling trade in coral used as jewelry and ornaments, saying that it could put the marine invertebrates at risk of extinction. Japan opposed it, saying that the argument lacks a scientific basis and that the nation imposes strict control on its coral catch.

Red coral live not only in the ocean around the Ogasawara Islands but also in the waters near Kochi, Nagasaki, Kagoshima and Okinawa prefectures, on the sea bed 100 to 300 meters below the surface. In the waters around the Ogasawara Islands, only four local entities are allowed to catch red coral with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s approval.

Japan’s efforts to place strict controls on the catch of red coral will come to naught if no action is taken against poaching. The recent incursion of Chinese poachers has led the Diet to revise two relevant laws to raise the upper limit of a fine to ¥30 million for poaching both inside Japanese territorial waters and its EEZ, from ¥4 million and ¥10 million, respectively.

In their recent landmark summit in Beijing, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to take appropriate steps to stop the poaching of red coral. China later told Japan that it was taking various measures to this end. Even though the number of Chinese poachers around the Ogasawara Islands has since declined, the two governments need to deepen their cooperation to fully eradicate the problem. Japan should continue to pressure China to crack down on the illegal activities of its fishermen.

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