Cablegate: Russian Far East Fishing: The North Korean Connection

Published: Wed 6 Aug 2008 12:15 AM
R 060015Z AUG 08
E.O. 12958: N/A
1. (U) Summary. Fishing is often said to be the most
criminalized industry in the Russian Far East. After several
months of planning, one small fishing company in Zarubino agreed
to allow the CG and one FSN to accompany the trawler MPC 254 on
a fishing trip in Peter the Great Bay. While the August 5
fishing expedition may not have been entirely typical, it did
provide a glimpse into the opaque world of Far Eastern fishing
and the fish processing that is accomplished with the help of
contract North Korean laborers. End Summary.
2. (U) Even Primorskiy Krai Governor Darkin admits that the
Russian Fishing Industry is hampered by poaching and illegal
exports. He has warned that Kamchatkan crab will disapear and
he's outlined the economic harm done to Russia when Russian
boats simply offload seafood in Korea, Japan or China without
processing in Russia. The industry does have some economic
advantages. Low wages for employees, a low-tech fishing fleet
that is not capital intensive, and still relatively healthy
stocks of some types of fish. Importing North Korean laborers
also keeps the costs of Russian seafood low. But to compete in
the world market, Russia will have to show that the industry is
sustainable. This short fishing excursion revealed an industry
that is far from the world standard.
3. (U) The expedition got underway early in the morning with the
Captain pointing out the fishing grounds on his chart and the
most likely place to find the bottom fish they were after. In
the corner of this local maritime map is the Russian-North
Korean border at the river Tyumen. The trip took place north of
the border. Always in sight of land, the 22 meter boat cruised
through the southern most stretch of Russian territory.
Zarubino is 6,400 kilometers from Moscow, but just 600
kilometers from Pyongyang. The rusty ship was built in 1984 and
probably has not been painted since, but it seemed seaworthy.
The Captain was asked how many crew members he needed. He
laughed and said "six; today we have five." Indeed, the lack of
manpower hurt the boat later on.
4. (U) Most of the crew were quite experienced. There was a dog
on board too that knew the ship inside and out. One sailor had
35 years on the water, with the tattoos on his fingers and
elsewhere to prove it. Crew members confirmed that their pay
depended on the day's catch, but no one would volunteer what
percentage they made on the profits. Everyone agreed that the
salaries were low and part of the reason for the Russian fishing
fleet being chronically short staffed. The North Korean
laborers, while inexpensive, always stay on shore.
5. (U) The crew did their best to keep the Consulate staff
comfortable and safe. A strong swell from the south from a
previous storm made the going less than smooth. When one
staffer got seasick, he was offered the Russian folk remedy of a
pickle, the sight of which had an immediate effect on the sea
sick passenger.
6. (U) By mid-morning, in 40 meters of water, the sonar showed
some promising blips. The Captain ordered the nets over the
stern. For the next 90 minutes the lines and nets went out
while the boat circled. The nets finally came up with crabs and
starfish first that were entangled in the netting. Then the
bulk of the catch came up with a dripping tentacled arm of an
octopus wriggling out of the netting. The crew pulled the net
in and began sorting the crab, flounder, cod, pollock, octopus,
and kelp. One starfish the size of a garbage can went
overboard. The crab, while economically profitable, is banned.
The crew is allowed, nevertheless, to keep two percent of any
banned fish, so several crabs were kept for lunch. In general,
there was very little bycatch, one of the environmental
challenges facing bigger fishing boats. Almost everything
caught was used. That said, all trash, including plastic
bottles, cans of cooking oil and cigarette packs, went over the
side without a moment's hesitation. The Captain reported once
dredging up the hull of a Toyota in his nets. Trash is often
confused on the sonar for fish.
7. (U) The catch was disappointingly small, which the Captain
blamed on not having enough crew to operate the nets properly.
In general, the Captain was satisfied with the direction of the
Russian fishing industry. He said poaching is becoming less of
a problem. We saw on shore however a cache of scallop shells.
The locals are fond of saying the shells are the size of dinner
plates, and they were indeed quite large. Apparently scuba
divers collect the shells, take out the meat, and dump the
shells on shore. The meat can then be hidden onboard ship and
packaged for the black market. The Russian Border Guards are
reportedly more active than in past years. An inspection, while
not welcome, is thorough, lasting over two hours. The Captain
was fined one thousand rubles last week for not declaring a new
crewmember on his log book. But poachers do hurt business and
everyone wants their cut. On shore, two local militia were
waiting for the boat and asked for "sponsorship" by way of a few
free fish. They were accommodated.
8. (U) Once ashore the fish are sorted again. Some fish are
ground and frozen, destined to be used for cattle and pig feed.
In the plant in Zarubino 16 North Korean women and ten North
Korean men work the conveyor belts and sort and prepare fish.
The women got higher marks than the men for productivity.
According to the plant manager, though, overall the North
Koreans are not as efficient as Russian workers - but they are a
lot cheaper. The North Koreans have a November - June contract
that can be extended. They have been in Zarubino for at least
the last three years. They live in dormitories within walking
distance to the plant. The dorms seem no better or worse than
the local housing overall. The North Koreans do not speak
Russian but have an interpreter who is also the foreman of the
group. He was better dressed and is apparently better paid.
The plant manager contradicted the ship Captain, who had
insisted that all fish caught are consumed domestically, saying
some of the seafood is exported to South Korea.
9. (U) Comment: The Russian fishing industry has a long way to
go to modernize. Fishing company directors told us that they
are not even considering new equipment, although they do rely on
American GPS devices. New ships, however, for now, are out of
the question. The industry may not be transparent and it may be
criminalized, but if anyone is getting rich in the industry, it
is certainly not the fisherman on board the MPC 254. At the end
of the trip we ate the octopus, crab and sea urchins with wasabi
and soy sauce. While all of the seafood would fetch higher
prices in nearby Asian markets, we were repeatedly assured that
they only sell to Russian customers. Of course, fishermen are
known to exaggerate.
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