Arrest brings calamity to trawler captain's family

08:39, September 13, 2010      

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Zhan Qixiong, captain of the seized Chinese fishing trawler Minjinyu 5179, was arrested by the Japan Coast Guard last Wednesday and brought to Ishigaki to face prosecutors. (Provided to China Daily)

It has been 12 days since trawler captain Zhan Qixiong left home to fish on the East China Sea, where generations of Chinese fishermen have made a living. But Zhan would never have expected the events of last Tuesday - when he and his boat were seized in waters off China's Diaoyu Islands by Japan's coast guard - that triggered the dramatic changes in his life.

His 85-year-old grandmother - who was recovering from an earlier fall - died last Wednesday hours after hearing of his arrest.

"She was fine when I called her in the morning," relative Zheng Feng told China Daily. "But she got a lot worse after she heard the news."

Zhan, 41, and 14 other crew members of the Minjinyu 5179, were taken into custody in the early hours last Wednesday, sparking strong protests by the Chinese government and campaigners calling for their release.

According to Japanese authorities, the Chinese vessel collided with two coast guard patrol boats before it was intercepted on Sept 7. The captain was later arrested for "obstructing officers on duty".

On Friday, Ishigaki Summary Court in Japan's Okinawa prefecture approved the detention of the captain until Sept 19. His shipmates have not been arrested but are confined to the trawler.

The front door of Zhan's family home in Ganghu town was closed on Saturday, an unusual sight in this close-knit fishing community in the coastal city of Jinjiang, Fujian province.

Zhan's wife, whose surname is Chen, refused to comment when approached by China Daily. However, a neighbor who insisted on being identified only as Wu said the arrest is among several blows suffered by the family in recent years.

"Things were not good even before this incident," she said, explaining that the trawler captain's father died two years ago, while his mother has cataracts and heart disease.

To bring in extra cash, Zhan's wife has been working in a printing factory, said Wu.

In accordance with the village's customs, Zhan, as the eldest grandson, should perform traditional rituals within seven days after the death. His grandmother's body has been packed in ice and cannot be buried until he returns, said Wu.

"The couple's 13-year-old son keeps telling his mother not to worry, that his daddy will be back soon," added Wu. "He's a strong boy."

Ships in the night

Xu Lilong, who has been fishing the coastline of Fujian for three years, was working on the Minjinyu 5178 near the Diaoyu Islands when coast guard patrols arrived on Tuesday.

Officers on the Japanese boats claimed the Chinese trawlers were operating illegally and ordered them to leave, he said.

"Ours was among hundreds of vessels operating in those waters at the time," said the 33-year-old. "Suddenly, three Japanese boats appeared shining powerful spotlights and one began to chase us. I was petrified.

"Their boats are much larger and faster than ours but our captain is experienced," said Xu.

"He immediately turned the vessel around and headed home at full speed. The Japanese couldn't catch us thanks to our large wake."

However, the 37-meter Minjinyu 5179 was unable to navigate away and was quickly trapped by the coast guard's 1,300-ton Yonakuni.

Media reports in Japan citing the nation's coast guard said Zhan's trawler collided with the Yonakuni at 9:15 am on Tuesday morning and then with the Mizuki, another patrol boat, 40 minutes later. No injuries were reported.

Coast guards arrived the next day to seize the captain, his crew and his boat and take them to Ishigaki Island, according to NHK, Japanese broadcaster.

Wu Tianzhu, owner of the captured boat, said his fleet regularly fishes in waters off the Diaoyu Islands and admitted there is often friction with the Japanese authorities.

"They use large speakers to tell us to leave but we carry on fishing anyway," he said.

On May 25 this year, a fishing vessel from Taiwan province was in a collision with a Japanese patrol ship while transporting a statue of Mazu to one of the Diaoyu Islands.

Mazu is a sea goddess which is said to protect sailors and fishermen and is widely worshipped in Fujian, Taiwan and Guangdong provinces, as well as in other Southeast Asian countries.

Members of the coast guards attempted to board the boat carrying the statue but the captain refused. They were eventually forced to retreat 25 nautical miles from the islands.

The Minjinyu 5178 headed back out to sea at the weekend but Xu was not on it. He said he needs more time to rest.

"Working as a fisherman is tiring," he said. "All 14 men on the crew have to work for 30 hours straight and also be on constant alert for Japanese patrol boats."

Xu said he earns 200 yuan ($29) a day from fishing and explained that a captain like Zhan makes roughly three to four times that amount.

Business as usual

Zhan's home in Ganghu is less than 300 meters from Shenhu Harbor. Of the 2,000 people who live there, 80 percent rely on fishing as their main source of income. Most others work at one of the town's frozen processing plants and printworks.

Almost 350 vessels are docked at the harbor, which produce 128,000 tons of fish every year. In 2007, its total output was 391 million yuan.

As the offshore fish are decreasing significantly, the fishing season only runs from June 1 to Aug 1 to allow the fry a chance to breed and mature, said businesswoman Wu.

The sun was shining again on Saturday morning following the rainstorms brought by Typhoon Meranti and fishermen at Shenhu Harbor were loading up their boats to head back to their usual fishing spots off the Diaoyu Islands.

"About 70 to 80 trawlers leave for the islands from this harbor each week," said fishmonger Chen Ping as he supervised porters moving boxes of frozen fish from a boat to his refrigerated truck. "A vessel can bring back about 100,000 jin (50 tons).

"We pay 4 yuan per kilogram, after which the fish are packed and shipped to markets in Fujian, Guangdong and Zhejiang provinces," he said.

Chen, who is now in his 40s, used to own a 35-meter fishing trawler that could carry a 15-strong crew across to the Diaoyu Islands.

"The people here have been fishing (around the islands) for as long as I can remember," he said.

"A round trip took about three days and we would spend about four days fishing, which added up to an exhausting week. I'd rather stay on shore, even if it means making less money."

However, less money does not mean less work and Chen must visit dozens of boats to buy their haul. The only one missing from his checklist recently is the Minjinyu 5179.

"We feel sorry for Zhan. He is a good captain and we just think he has been unlucky," said the trader. "But one incident will not have much effect on our business. Everything is still the same here."

When asked why so many trawlers go to the Diaoyu Islands for fishing, the retired sea captain indignantly replied: "Do we need a reason to fish our own territory?"

China News Service contributed to this story.

By Wei Tian, China Daily

(Editor:梁军)

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