South Korea facing scrutiny over USD 800,000 in illegal toothfish sales

The South Korean government is facing scrutiny from regional and international NGOs for mishandling a case of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing that occurred in the Antarctic.

Two vessels found fishing illegally in Antarctic waters in December 2017, the Southern Ocean and Hong-Jin 701, were allowed to sell their catch on the global seafood market after the South Korean government failed to enforce proper sanctions, according to the Environmental Justice Foundation. 

The vessels, both owned by the Hong-Jin company, had been found in violation of conservation measures set by the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), an international fishing body established by the U.N. to protect Antarctic waters. Over the course of four days, both boats illegally obtained 70 tons of toothfish despite receiving a closure notification from the CCAMLR secretariat, according to environmental non-governmental organization.

Alerted that the vessels had violated international rules, the Korean government vowed to prevent operator Hong-Jin from receiving any financial benefits from the illicit catch. Officials issued a 60-day business suspension, effectively barring the vessels from fishing for a time. However, the suspension was applied during a non-fishing period in CCAMLR, meaning it had little to no impact on the operator, said several NGOs in a joint statement criticizing the government’s actions, including EJF, the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), the Citizen's Institutes for Environmental Studies (CIES), and the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement (KFEM).

Because the Korean government did not deliver on its promise to impose appropriate sanctions on the vessels, the operator was able to sell the illegal toothfish catch on the global market for more than USD 800,000 (EUR 708,384), the NGOs said. 

In addition to failed sanctions, the Korean Prosecutors Office did not take forward criminal prosecution of the case, the NGOs added. 

“Contrary to what the Korean government announced internationally, Korean officials allowed the IUU-caught fish to enter not only Korea but also the international market. Even worse, the government is claiming that [it is] not aware of its destination. This incident reveals how legal loopholes and un-transparent fishery governance can be exploited,” the NGO groups said in their joint statement.

The statement goes on to call for “implementation of stronger measures that can prevent illegally caught fish entering the market, and the establishment of a fish traceability system to prevent similar cases.”

In October 2018, South Korea’s Minister of Fisheries signed a pledge to work more closely with the European Union to tackle IUU fishing.

In November 2018, CCAMLR officially classified Southern Ocean and Hong-Jin 701 as “non-compliance level three” vessels, meaning “seriously, frequently, or persistently non-compliant.” 

The Hong-Jin-owned vessels currently appear on a list authorized to export to the European Union. Korean toothfish vessels frequently export their product to the United States, raising the prospect that their illegal catches may find their way into international markets, the EJF said. 


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