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The fishers of Penghu see firsthand the tensions between Taiwan and China

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Sandwiched in the strip of water between Taiwan and China is a tiny Taiwanese archipelago called the Penghu Islands. This week, China's Coast Guard began patrols in waters around a nearby Taiwanese island. As NPR's Emily Feng reports, the fishermen who live in Penghu have a front-row seat to the tensions between the two places.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Lin Jiatian still remembers the day his life turned upside down. He was a freshman in high school when a fishing boat his family owned became the center of a major Taiwanese scandal.

LIN JIATIAN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "One of the first cases of mainland Chinese fishermen murdering Taiwanese fishermen, that was on my family's boat," he says.

The killers were caught, but three of his relatives were dead, killed in international waters, and his family's business was devastated by the fallout.

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LIN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He says it was 1989 when Taiwanese could not employ Chinese fishers. But Taiwan really needed more fishermen, so his family set up operations in international waters and hired Chinese fishers to work there. The killings were a brutal example early in life, he says, of how the lonely job of fishing is often caught up in the complex Taiwan-China relationship. Taiwan executed two Chinese workers even though the crime they committed was in international waters. But Lin could not get the family's boat back. Now, Lin sells fish at one of Penghu's main markets, a job that reminds him daily of the slippery nature of cross-strait tensions with China...

LIN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: ...Because, he says, this is a competitive game. Both Chinese and Taiwanese fishermen are now vying for dwindling fish stocks.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Penghu is best known for its Spanish mackerel. And at this predawn auction, gleaming silver specimens, each more than a yard long, are stacked like logs waiting for the highest bid.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: One giant fish can go for 60 to $150. Some of it is exported to the U.S...

(SOUNDBITE OF PLASTIC SQUEAKING)

FENG: ...But most of it stays in Taiwan.

CHEN LIANG-SHENG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Fisherman Chen Liang-sheng would like to sell more of his fish to China, but he says China now blocks imports of certain species found in Taiwan's waters.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLASTIC SQUEAKING)

FENG: As we talk, Indonesian fisherman Chen has hired pack up dozens of Styrofoam boxes of Taiwanese goatfish for export.

CHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Chen says they're sending the boxes to Hong Kong, a Chinese-governed region, but which has not blocked the Taiwanese fish - a little workaround they've devised.

YANG YIQIAN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Next door, fisherwoman Yang Yiqian is gutting and drying mackerel for Taiwanese consumers.

YANG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "This is the winter catch," she explains, "fished from waters close to Penghu."

In the summers, her family's boats travel farther, almost to China's waters.

YANG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: And Chinese fishermen, she says, are sailing farther and farther as well - into Taiwanese waters sometimes, fishing from their fishing stocks, all competing for the same resources. The competition can turn deadly. This month, two Chinese fishermen drowned after being chased out of waters Taiwan said belonged to them. But despite the tensions, Yang says she still hires Chinese fishermen for seasonal work on her family's boats.

YANG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Though, there are fewer Chinese workers this year because they're demanding higher salaries. But they're reliable workers who speak a common language. Plus, out on the water for weeks at a time, Yang says sometimes the only people you'll see are other fishermen from China, a country that is simultaneously competitor, customer and sometimes colleague.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Magong in the Penghu Islands, Taiwan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.