Why Blue Crabs Have Caused Clashes Between North Korea And South Korea

North and South Korea have a history of fighting over blue crabs. Throw illegal Chinese fishing around the disputed Northern Limit Line as a proxy for the North into the mix, and the potential for war over shellfish has been an unfortunate possibility for decades. In fact, overfishing for the much sought after creature has caused simmering tensions and clashes between the sister nations (via Nekkei Asia) in the past. 

The blue crabbing season usually starts in April in the Yellow Sea with peak fishing in June, but illegal crabbing is rampant and South Korea's navy and maritime police are on constant guard against North Korean fisherman and hundreds of rogue Chinese trawlers in the no-go zone. The NLL, as the maritime boundary is known, was drawn up after the Korean War and the signing of the 1953 Armistice Agreement by the U.S.-led United Nations Command in charge of defending South Korea. From South Korea's viewpoint, North Korean ships are not allowed to cross the NLL, but the North doesn't recognize the line (via RSIS School of International Studies), creating a clear recipe for conflict.

The diamond-shaped crab with its blue shell and big pincer claws is prized in the Koreas, China, and Japan for its delicate meat. The crustacean is the main ingredient in the popular South Korean dish Ganjang Gejang, raw crab marinated in soy sauce. It's also considered a cancer preventative and anti-aging food in some Asian nations (via Donga). 

Tensions boil over blue crabs

The overfishing and illegal catches have caused serious tensions. In 2016, the blue crab catch was down almost 70% from the previous season, according to South Korea's Yonhap News Agency (via Nekkei Asia). The staggering drop was blamed on overfishing by Chinese trawlers.

Tensions have boiled over, too, with gun battles at the height of the crab season in 1999 and 2002, and a deadly attack in 2010 when North Korea torpedoed a South Korean navy patrol ship, killing 46 sailors. The Chinese always seem to turn up in the middle of the "Crab Wars," as well. This year, South Korea, changed tactics, deploying drones to try and catch Chinese poaching vessels sneaking across the NLL, according to The Daily Sun. It's not just stealing limited supplies of blue crab and other fish in the disputed area. South Korean fisherman have reported that the Chinese trawlers damage the ocean environment, destroying nets and gear and polluting the waters with litter (via The Daily Sun).

South Korean fisherman Park Tae-won told KBS TV that the poachers sweep up everything in their path, from shellfish on the ocean floor to fish closer to the surface. "They just don't care about the damage to sea life," he said.

It's easy to see why tensions over the disputed fishing grounds along the Korean peninsula could escalate into a more serious situation at any point during blue crabbing season.