“At the peak, we used to be able to capture over 5,000 fish in a single day, but nowadays, it’s a challenge even to catch 100.”
Park Jeong-ki, the longstanding president of the Squid Fishermen’s Association, with over four decades of experience harvesting squid off the Sokcho coast in the East Sea, now faces a dire threat to his livelihood. This imminent peril stems from the vanishing squid population in the East Sea due to climate change. Just a few days ago, a mere 40 squid were hauled in over the course of an entire day, marking a staggering drop in catch volume to less than 1/100th of its peak. Expressing his profound concern, Park lamented, “Once we factor in expenses like labor and fuel, we’re operating at a loss. Making ends meet has become an impossible challenge, pushing me to the brink of abandoning squid fishing altogether.”
East Sea squid fishermen are enduring a formidable struggle. The decline in squid catches became alarmingly evident three years ago. Each subsequent year, the catch has plummeted, with 2022 and the previous year witnessing a halving of the squid haul, and this year sees the fish on the brink of disappearing altogether. As a last resort, some larger vessels venture into the West Sea or Russian waters, where squid have recently been spotted. Unfortunately, these ventures often prove unprofitable when factoring in additional expenses, such as soaring oil prices. Yet, transitioning to different fish species is no straightforward feat. Retrofitting boats with new equipment and installing nets suitable for the targeted species can incur costs in the tens of millions of won. The repercussions of this crisis extend beyond the fishermen themselves, impacting related businesses like seafood restaurants and stores, including those specializing in squid sundaes. Park said, “I never imagined that climate change, something I only witnessed on TV, would imperil my livelihood in such a manner.”
The sense of crisis experienced by Park extends far beyond the confines of the squid industry. Fishing villages at large are grappling with a pervasive fear that climate change-induced shifts in fish species will accelerate. In response, numerous fishermen, local governments, and research institutions are actively undertaking various initiatives to address these changing dynamics. For instance, Gangwon Province has allocated 30 billion won to establish a state-of-the-art salmon smart farming test facility to prepare for a significant downturn in future catches proactively. The project aims to amass comprehensive salmon and pollack farming data while identifying superior breeding stocks. Once this system is operational, it will enable the cultivation of fish species whose natural populations are rapidly dwindling in the East Sea, providing a tailored approach to their preservation.
Another interesting experiment is ongoing in North Chungcheong Province, devoid of a coastal presence. It involves nurturing fertilized salmon eggs imported from Iceland into mature adults within freshwater environments. The ultimate objective is to cultivate a strain of salmon that thrives exclusively in freshwater fish farms, transcending the typical behavior of salmon that “swim upstream.” This approach mirrors methods employed by fishing industry leaders like the U.S. and Switzerland. While last year’s efforts yielded limited success due to several variables, introducing pristine groundwater this year holds promise for significant progress.
Despite enduring the hottest summer in recorded history, many urban dwellers remain unconvinced that the climate crisis directly threatens our existence. However, residents of fishing villages, who are intimately connected with the natural world, keenly perceive the transformations underway and are actively seeking survival strategies. At the ‘2023 Sea Farm Show Aquaculture Expo,’ scheduled to take place this weekend (from Friday to Sunday) at the aT Center in Seoul, the ingenious solutions devised by fishermen in response to the fisheries industry crisis will be showcased. Visiting the event venue and applauding the resilience of our fishermen, who are already grappling with challenges such as the discharge of contaminated water from Japan, would be a nice way to spend the weekend.