The United States made a preliminary decision on Thursday to designate South Korea as a country that engages in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, calling on Asia's fourth-largest economy to adopt tougher regulations.
In a biennial report to Congress, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said it is identifying South Korea for "failing to apply sufficient sanctions to deter its vessels from engaging in fishing activities that violate conservation and management measures adopted by" the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.
"The Republic of Korea committed to amending its domestic law to ensure that appropriate mechanisms exist for taking appropriate corrective actions in future cases," it said.
To address the matter, the office of the US Trade Representative said in a press release that it plans to seek environment consultations with Seoul under the environment chapter of the two countries' bilateral free trade agreement.
The move came after two South Korean fishing boats failed to comply with regulations of the CCAMLR while operating near Antarctica in 2017, according to Seoul's oceans ministry.
It marks the second time for South Korea to be designated as a preliminary IUU fishing country after the European Union made a similar decision in 2013, which was lifted in 2015.
The two South Korean boats continued their operations even after the CCAMLR notified them of the closure of the fishing grounds.
One of the boats, Hongjin 701, claimed that it did not receive the alert as it was blocked as spam, while the other, Southern Ocean, deliberately ignored the message.
Hongjin 701 was later cleared of charges, and Southern Ocean received a suspension of indictment in 2018, only to receive an operation ban of 60 days. Both ships did not receive criminal punishments.
South Korea has been applying tougher regulations on overseas fishing after being designated as an IUU country in 2013, fining violators 1 billion won ($823,000).
NOAA raised a question over South Korea's lack of efforts to forfeit unlawfully-raised profits earned by the problematic boats in March.
Responding to the US claim, the ocean ministry in Seoul said it plans to make legal grounds to confiscate any profits raised from illegal operations.
South Korea also vowed to implement "zero-tolerance" polices on local fishing boats.
Last month, the US acknowledged that South Korea has been making notable progress in improving its regulations, but the preliminary designation was inevitable, citing a "matter of timing," the ministry official added.
Last month, the US also agreed to lift the preliminary decision for South Korea, even before the publication of its next report in 2021, if the South Korean parliament passes a revised bill that would strengthen punishments for illegal fishing, according to the ministry.
Currently, illegal fishing in distant waters is an offense that carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison or fines of between 1 billion won ($837,000) and up to five times the value of the marine products.
In July, a ruling party lawmaker submitted a revised bill of the Distant Water Fisheries Development Act that would create a penalty clause for violators.
The preliminary decision will have no direct impact on the local fishing industry for the time being, according to the ministry, which claimed that local fishing boats will still be allowed to maintain their operations without new restrictions.
If South Korea is confirmed to be an IUU nation, however, the country will be banned from shipping fishery goods to the US. (Yonhap)