By Takahiro Suzuki
XIAPU, China — Many of the Chinese fishing boats that poach scarce coral, dubbed “jewelry coral,” in waters around the Ogasawara Islands in Tokyo cast off from Xiapu County in Fujian Province, The Yomiuri Shimbun has learned. Due to the high popularity of the jewelry coral in China, the price for red coral, considered a luxury item, is sharply increasing.
It seems those fishermen, in the belief that Japanese coral commands high prices, are repeatedly setting sail and poaching coral near Japanese waters with the dream of striking it rich.
At a fishing port on a mountainous peninsula in the county, many fishing boats with the name Minxiayu — a distinctive name from this area — are anchored. The Chinese coral fishing boat that the Japan Coast Guard caught off the Ogasawara Islands in October, on suspicion of violating the Fisheries Law, had the same name.
A fisherman in his 30s revealed unapologetically that “more than 50 fishing boats sailed out to Japan a month ago. This is secret.”
It is well known among fishermen that there is good-quality red coral in waters around the Ogasawara Islands.
As word spreads of a ship owner said to have made about ¥350 million in just one month last year, the number of ships involved in coral poaching is reportedly on the rise.
Another fisherman, 56, said that he had been hired by a Taiwan boat and engaged in red coral poaching off Okinawa Prefecture about 10 years ago. As Japanese aircraft had been flying over the area on alert, they poached the coral covertly during the night, the man recalled.
“Red coral from Japanese waters sells at a very high price,” he added.
Price quadruples in 5 years
In China, jewelry coral enjoys high popularity for accessories, and red coral especially is prized as a luxury.
At a red coral jewelry store in Shanghai, coral is processed into necklaces and pendants, which are on display priced at more than ¥1 million.
Items made from Japanese red corals are especially popular and are known as “Aka,” which means red in Japanese. Larger red coral with a darker color is said to be more expensive, and they are mainly purchased by the wealthy.
According to this store, high-quality red coral was sold at about ¥35,000 per gram five years ago, but the price has more than quadrupled to about ¥150,000.
Saying the store buys its red coral from Japan and Taiwan, staff added that it is becoming harder to buy. “The price of Aka will rise further,” they said.
Quality yields damaged
Along with the sharp rise of its price, some people in China are starting to become concerned about the risk of a drop in the red coral population due to overexploitation by fishermen.
Fishermen, themselves, have begun to say that it is getting harder to collect red coral.
According to fishermen in Xiapu County they had been harvesting red coral off Taiwan for more than 20 years but expanded their operations to the area off Okinawa Prefecture and the Ogasawara Islands due to the declining availability of the coral near Taiwan.
Even there, it is not easy to collect red coral, they say.
As jewelry coral is found in deep waters, fishermen generally sink nets with weights to the ocean floor and sweep the floor to pull up coral from its roots.
A wholesaler in Shanghai expressed concern over such fishing methods, saying: “Red corals caught by Chinese fishermen include many of poor quality. Because they collect the coral roughly, they damage even the good-quality ones.”