Research from nonprofit Global Fishing Watch found that the number of aggregate days North Korean vessels spent squid fishing in Russian waters dropped 95%, from 146,800 to 6,600. Squid fishing in North Korea’s own territorial waters also suffered a massive decline.
Global Fishing Watch used satellite imagery and other maritime monitoring technologies to track the number of squid fishing ships over the May to November fishing season. Squid fishing is among the easiest operations to track from afar because it is usually done at night with powerful lighting equipment.
Squid is popular throughout Northeast Asia, and rising demand in recent years has threatened the sustainability of the already dwindling squid stocks in the region, according to Global Fishing Watch. In North Korea, squid is fermented, pickled, barbecued, stir-fried or dried and served as a snack.
Jaeyoon Park, a senior data scientist at Global Fishing Watch, said the unprecedented decline appeared to be due to the stringent entry and exit controls North Korean leader Kim Jong Un put in place to keep Covid-19 out of the country.
Experts believe Kim sealed North Korea’s borders last year and severed the last of its scant ties with the outside world because he knows Pyongyang’s decrepit health care infrastructure would be overwhelmed by a coronavirus outbreak.
North Korea says it has not contracted a single case of Covid-19, a claim most experts dismiss as propaganda. But the country has seemingly been spared from a major wave of infections, thanks in part to stringent anti-epidemic measures, controls on the movement of people and the border lockdown.
“We can safely say there are nationwide shortages of several key food types,” he said.
Fishing far from home
North Korean fisherman often operate illegally outside the country’s own waters because of overcrowding.
Global Fishing Watch’s Park said squid fishing in both Russian and North Korean territorial waters dropped dramatically in 2020. During the peak of the season from September through November, Global Fishing Watch found 50% fewer ships of Chinese origin operating in North Korean waters than it did over the same time in previous years.
North Korean squid fishing boats, however, did not take advantage. There was no corresponding increase of North Korean squid fishing in the country’s own territorial waters, so it’s likely a large amount of North Korea’s squid supply “completely disappeared in 2020,” Park said.