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Defending fishing rights necessary: fishermen

Defending fishing rights necessary: fishermen

Taiwanese fishermen lauded and expressed their full support Sunday for the government's action in sending patrol ships to international waters near a Japanese-controlled atoll in the Western Pacific that day to protect Taiwanese fishing boats operating there.

"Yes, (the government) should be this hard. This is what we call protecting fishermen," said Tsai Tien-yu, a fishing boat owner and former chief of Liouciou Township in Pingtung County, while voicing his anger over Japan's detention of the Liouciou-registered fishing boat "Tung Sheng Chi No. 16," in waters close to Okinotori Atoll April 25.

Tsai said the case has not just caused financial losses resulting from the seizure of the fishing boat and the payment of a security deposit to the tune of NT$1.76 million (US$54,442). The skipper also had to undergo a strip search. "Human rights have been violated," he protested.

All the fishermen in Liouciou hold the consensus that while demanding the return of the deposit, the government must also demand that Japan compensate for the loss of fishing gear and the fish the "Tung Sheng Chi No. 16" was unable to catch because of the seizure.

Moreover, the government must ask Japan to apologize for the insult the skipper suffered, Tsai contended.

There had never been any Taiwanese fishing boats seized by Japan in waters near Okinotori Atoll until last week. "That sea area has been regarded as the high seas," Tsai argued, describing the detention as the result of Japan's unilateral expansion of its maritime territory.

"The government's fishery protection action (on Sunday) meets the justice of protection of fishermen," he said.

Tsai's remarks were echoed by Liouciou District Fishermen's Association Chief Executive Tsai Pao-hsin.

He said that from March to July each year, more than 200 Taiwanese fishing boats hunt for several different kinds of fish, including mahi mahi and swordfish, in waters near Okinotori. They had always safely operated in that area until two years ago, when Japanese military boats began to drive them away.

No seizures had happened until the "Tung Sheng Chi No. 16" incident, he said.

Meanwhile in Donggang Township, also in Pingtung, Donggang District Fishermen's Association Chief Executive Lin Han-chou expressed his full support for the government's protection mission in waters near Okinotori.

In the northeastern county of Yilan, fishermen there are also angry with Japan's unilateral move to expand its economic maritime zone.

Lin Yueh-ying, a former chief executive of the Su'ao District Fishermen's Association, recalled that over the past 10 years, Japanese patrol boats have often thrown PET bottles containing a chart of Okinotori into Taiwanese fishing boats operating in waters nears the atoll to declare Japan's sovereignty over the area.

On the chart, Okinotori Atoll is called "Okinotori Island," Lin said, noting that whenever she receives such a chart, she changes the word "island" into "atoll." No fishermen in Su'ao recognize Japan's declaration of economic maritime zone expansion, she said.

Two patrol ships set off Sunday to waters near Okinotori on a mission to protect Taiwanese fishermen operating in the area under a directive issued by President Ma Ying-jeou that the protection of fishermen's rights and benefits must be carried out with full strength.

Premier Simon Chang said Saturday that the Navy will also be on standby to provide further assistance if needed.

The "Tung Sheng Chi No. 16" and its crew were released April 26 after the payment of US$54,442 was made as a deposit, pending legal proceedings.

Japan claims a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone around the tiny atoll, but Taiwan argues that Okinotori is a reef rather than an island -- as Japan defines it -- and therefore is not entitled to anything more than a 500-meter "security zone" around it.

Taiwan has protested at the highest level the detention by the Japanese coast guard, and President Ma has asked relevant government agencies to step up protection for the country's fishermen operating in waters near the atoll.

Okinotori is about 860 nautical miles east of Eluanbi, the southernmost point of Taiwan.