PINGTAN — As China sends warships and fighter jets to the Taiwan Strait after a U.S. visit by Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, deemed a separatist by Beijing, fishing crews plying the narrow waterway say they fret more about their livelihood than politics.
For years, Chinese fishermen trawling for fish, shrimp and crab have played cat and mouse with Taiwanese authorities as they closely track boats that near the median line of the Taiwan Strait.
Villagers on Pingtan island in China’s southeastern Fujian province, just across from Taiwan, say fishing is their livelihood – and trips to sea are more fraught as China stages new military drills in the strait, just 160km (100 miles) at its narrowest.
“If no fish come to my net, my family will probably starve to death,” said Wang, a fisherman in his 40s in Pingtan’s Dafu village, where his ancestors have fished for generations. Like the other fishermen interviewed for this article, he gave only his family name because of the sensitivity of the situation.
When Wang’s boat sailed on Friday morning to an area half an hour from Pingtan, his crew brought back about 7,000 yuan ($1,000) worth of mainly red shrimp and pomfret. About 20 people worked on that boat.
Each fisherman earns about 200 to 300 yuan for a day’s work, far less than needed to raise a family, Wang said.
“Diesel is getting more and more expensive, and our living costs have risen significantly, with the meager government subsidies just a drop in the bucket,” he said.
China launched exercises around the main Taiwan island on Saturday as part of drills that will last until Monday. The Fujian Maritime Bureau also announced live firing drills off the coast of the Fujian capital, Fuzhou, as well as Pingtan.
Those activities won’t stop fishermen from heading to sea, but the increased tensions will make them more wary about getting close to the median line.
“We used to travel to the open waters, but now we only fish near the shore, since we are not allowed to cross the red line. There’s no point in risking heavy fines,” said another fisherman, Yan, who has been working in the strait for a decade.
Wang said he was more concerned about the end of the fishing season on May 1. Islanders, including him, are scrambling to seize every sailing opportunity as they brace for three months of zero income.
“We have been fishing since we were very young, and will do so until we are old enough to die – we have no time to think about issues other than our personal struggles,” Wang said with a small smile.
On Saturday, Taipei said more than 40 Chinese planes crossed the Taiwan Strait’s “median line,” which Beijing does not recognize.
Deteriorating relations have made Chinese fishermen more afraid of approaching the line.
“No one dares to cross that line or even go near it,” said Yan, whose boat frequently sails around the resource-rich Niushan Island.
Several times last year, Taiwan’s coast guard detained Chinese fishing crew members, citing illegal trawling, according to official statements.
China’s Taiwan Affairs Office has in recent years called on Taiwanese authorities to stop treating mainland fishermen “in a violent and dangerous manner” and to stop seizing mainland fishing boats.
“We could be charged hundreds of thousands of yuan by the Taiwan government if found crossing the red line for trawling,” Wang said.
Another fisherman, Lin, 53, said he hoped relations would improve.
“If there is a war, Pingtan will definitely be the front line, and I’ll enlist if our country needs me,” Lin said while fixing his net near their village. “But I feel and hope that the day would never come.” ($1 = 6.8681 Chinese yuan renminbi) (Reporting by Josh Arslan and Thomas Peter; Writing by Ella Cao and Ryan Woo. Editing by Gerry Doyle)