Early in the morning of December 2, the factory trawler Oryong 501 sank into the frigid depths of the Bering Sea off of Russia’s east coast. A large wave hit the vessel as it hauled in a catch of pollock. Though the ship was South Korean-flagged, BBC News reports that 35 Indonesians, 13 Filipinos, 11 South Koreans and one Russian inspector were onboard at the time of the sinking; so far, 27 have been confirmed dead and 8 rescued, with the others missing. These figures indicate one of the dark underbellies of Oryong 501′s calamitous end: the use of Southeast Asian labor on factory trawlers. In August 2010, Oyang 70 sank in New Zealand waters. In a story that parallels that of Oryong 501, Kiwi newspaper The Press explained

“Five Indonesians, all working in brutal conditions with low or no wages, died because, as coroner Richard McElrea found in a report out yesterday, the Korean officers of the 38-year-old ship abandoned the low-wage Indonesians and Filipinos as the ship sank. “It was a matter of every man for himself.”

It should come as no surprise that Oyang 70 and Oryong 501 were owned by the same South Korean fishing company: Sajo Oryang, which has the undesirable distinction of being on Greenpeace’s International Blacklist for companies and vessels involved in illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing.

Asia(ns) in the Arctic

Southeast Asian labor is prominent throughout the Arctic: Thai cooks staff the cafeterias of Svalbard, while Filipinos work in Iqaluit, Canada and Nuuk, Greenland. This northernmost reach of Asian diasporas and fishing boats goes to show that Asia is already in the Arctic, but in a more stratified way than often presented by the media. On the factory trawlers, Southeast Asian labor is used to help extract Arctic resources for consumption in wealthy Asian nations like South Korea and Japan.

While most of the reporting on South Korean interests has to do with the emergence of Arctic shipping lanes like the Northern Sea Route, the Oryong 501 incident reveals the lengths to which the country will go to catch Arctic seafood. The factory trawler left the port of Busan, South Korea – a potential future hub for Arctic destinational shipping – to sail to the Bering Sea in search of pollock, a type of cod used in fish sticks in North America and Europe. The white, flaky fish is also popular in Korea, where, when frozen, it is used in recipes such as pollock pancakes (dongtaejeon). Dried pollock is used in bukeoguk, a soup commonly eaten in winter. The reuse of frozen and dried pollock recalls time-tested recipes from places like Ireland, Iceland, and Maine, where frozen and dried cod has been consumed in soups, stews, and as a protein-rich snack for centuries. These similarities suggest some sort of convergent culinary evolution in the North Pacific and North Atlantic.

South Korea receives an annual quota from Russia to fish in its exclusive economic zone. Earlier this year, Yonhap reported that after three days of negotiations in Seoul, Russia granted the Asian nation a quota of 49,615 tons of fish, including 30,000 tons of pollock. South Korea also received the right to fish an extra 10,000 tons of pollock if it managed to stop illegally caught Russian king crabs, a prized (and controversial) species, from making their way across the country’s borders. The right to additional fishing quotas was therefore tied to Seoul’s anti-crab-smuggling efforts. While well-intended, however, the measure, which provides increased fishing rights as a reward, could further decimate the already declining pollock stocks in the North Pacific Ocean.

Factory trawlers

chicagotribuneFactory trawlers such as Oryong 501 contribute to the depletion of fish stocks worldwide. After dragging enormous nets through the water that barely discern between fish species, these vessels freeze their desired catch onboard (throwing the wasted bycatch overseas), which eliminates the need to rush to the market. These types of ships – literally floating factories – can stay at sea indefinitely and continually reap huge bounties, sometimes hundreds of tons per day. F/V Alaska Ocean, the largest factory trawler in the U.S., can process 600 metric tons of pollock per day. Contrast that with the clipping from The Chicago Tribune in 1966. Reuters reported that a Japanese fishing boat caught 80 tons of salmon in the Arctic over a period of two months. Now, a factory trawler can catch that same amount in a few hours.

Factory trawlers represent the culmination of centuries of innovations in fishing, as detailed in Mark Kurlansky’s seminal book, Cod. For a while, these advances resulted in bigger and bigger catches. The 1950s, for instance, are often referred to as the “golden years” of cod fishing in the North Atlantic. After World War II, factory trawlers began fishing the North Atlantic. The going was good for a few years until the intake of fish became so big that it sent the population, unable to reproduce, into collapse. In Distant Water, William Warner solemnly writes that factory trawlers “fished too well for their own future.” Canada banned cod fishing in 1992, dealing a huge blow to communities in places like Newfoundland that were literally built on the industry. Cod stocks in the North Atlantic have since been extremely slow to recover, but factory trawlers continue their frighteningly efficient work in the North Pacific.

The International Bering Sea Forum (IBSF) notes, “Native ways of life have been devastated by ecological and climatic changes around the Bering.” When factory trawlers are busy emptying the Bering Sea, indigenous peoples are finding fewer opportunities to feed themselves. Alaska Native communities along the Bering Sea, for instance, have traditionally relied on salmon rather than pollock, yet they are still unwittingly affected by pollock fishing. Salmon can get caught in the big, undiscerning nets used by trawlers to catch pollock. Without proper licenses or quotas to catch salmon, trawlers instead throw the cold, dead bodies of hundreds of thousands of the pink fish, both juveniles and adults, back into the water as bycatch every year [1]. IBSF continues, “The profits from Bering Sea fish go largely to huge fishing companies, which have left many fishing communities destitute.” It also has repercussions for the families of the Filipino and Indonesian fishermen who were paid low wages to begin with and have now paid with their lives.

Russia’s Kamchatka Border Guard Directorate, South Korea’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, and the U.S. Coast Guard are all involved in the search and rescue mission to find the fishermen lost at sea during the sinking of their vessel. This shows the possibility of cooperation in the North Pacific during a time of emergency. Yet the region’s fisheries are also in a state of emergency. While organizations like the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission are already in place to help manage fish stocks on the high seas, more could be done to combat overfishing, illegal fishing, and unsafe working conditions on fishing vessels in both territorial waters and on the high seas. The Russians, Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans all allegedly carry out some of these illicit practices.

The tragic loss of 27 and counting lives in the Bering Sea underscores the dangers associated with the commercial fishing industry, especially in Arctic waters. Factory trawlers rampaging these unforgiving seas in harrowing conditions risk needlessly sending fishermen – often labor seen as “disposable” if coming from places like Indonesia and the Philippines – and fish stocks once considered to be “inexhaustible” – to their watery graves. The greater tragedy unfolding in the North Pacific is the failure of the littoral societies to realize the wastefulness with which they treat both human labor and fish stocks.


[1] Association of Village Council Presidents. (2013). Reduction of Chinook and Chum Salmon Bycatch in the Bering Sea Pollock Fishery.

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