By Ryuji Kudo
The Japan Coast Guard is dispatching a large patrol vessel to Tokyo's remote Ogasawara island chain to deter Chinese fishermen from poaching lucrative red coral.
"In China, red coral trades at a high price, so a growing number of Chinese vessels have raced there to make a fortune," Yuji Sato, commandant of the Coast Guard, told reporters on Oct. 15.
An increasing number of Chinese vessels have been spotted in the area in recent months. They are believed to be searching for the marine invertebrates, which are used in jewelry.
According to the Fisheries Agency, fishermen must obtain permission from the governor of Tokyo and prefectures such as Kochi and Okinawa where fishing sites are located before engaging in coral harvesting.
Against the backdrop of an increasing number of poaching incidents, the Ogasawara village assembly called on the Coast Guard on Oct. 8 to step up its surveillance of the waters.
Despite continuing efforts to clamp down on illegal collecting since a Chinese fishing fleet was first spotted operating there this spring, 31 vessels remained in the waters as of Oct. 14, according to the Coast Guard.
Last year, the Coast Guard reported three Chinese vessels in waters around Miyakojima island in Okinawa Prefecture. A Coast Guard official said a large number of poaching vessels have since moved toward the Ogasawara chain.
Following a sharp increase in vessels there in September, the Coast Guard arrested a Chinese skipper operating in waters 10 kilometers off the chain's main Chichijima island on Oct. 5 on suspicion of poaching.
The 39-year-old, who was caught poaching in Japanese territorial waters, was suspected of violating the law restricting fishing operations by foreign nationals. Aerial surveillance by the Coast Guard confirmed there were 46 vessels in waters near the chain on Oct. 13.
Red coral is one of many types of jewelry coral and is prized in China in amulets and other ornaments. The market price of the material has surged in recent years.
According to the Japan Coral Association in Kochi, bright red coral traded at an average of 1.58 million yen ($14,900) per kilogram in 2012, five times the 2005 price.
“An increase in wealthy people in China has fueled demand for Japanese coral, which is rich in color,” said an official of the association.