x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

South Korea sharpens its harpoons

This week, concerns over conservation and animal welfare came up against such local culinary tastes and seafaring traditions with South Korea's announcement that it wants to resume the catching of minke whales for what is described as scientific research.

Activists pretend to carve up a model of a whale in Seoul in protest against the government's plans to resume whaling.
Activists pretend to carve up a model of a whale in Seoul in protest against the government's plans to resume whaling.

BEIJING // In the seafood markets of south-eastern South Korea, almost every marine creature imaginable seems to be for sale, soon to be served up on a dinnerplate.

Crabs of all shapes and sizes, eels, jellyfish, octopuses and clams - they are eaten by the bucketload in a part of the word where, at least for some, harvesting what the oceans have to offer is a way of life.

Yet the foods available in certain eateries might make even adventurous gourmets flinch: restaurants can be found with signboards depicting whales, indicating what customers will find on the menu.

This week, concerns over conservation and animal welfare came up against such local culinary tastes and seafaring traditions with South Korea's announcement that it wants to resume the catching of minke whales for what is described as scientific research.

The announcement at an International Whaling Commission meeting in Panama follows more than two decades in which Japan has been whaling for what it has described as scientific research, which is exempt from the 1986 IWC moratorium on whaling.

Despite a ban on whaling in South Korea, whale meat is already sold in the country, especially in the coastal cities of Ulsan and Busan, because minke whales are caught "accidentally" in fishermen's nets.

Han Jeong-hee, a Seoul-based oceans campaigner at Greenpeace, said this accounts for up to about 100 animals annually, adding it was unlikely all catches were accidental.

There's no way to tell whether it's been illegally killed," she said. "If you find a whale [in the fishing nets] that's still alive, you can wait until it's dead and bring it back and say it was dead. There are loopholes."

The discovery in modern-day South Korea of whaling murals dating back thousands of years has been cited as evidence the practice is part of the local culture and should be revived, even though until the 19th century, whaling was largely dormant for millennia.

Park Kyum-joon, a researcher at the government-affiliated Cetacean Research Institute in Ulsan, said in other parts of the country there was little interest in whaling or whale meat, but in his region the desire to catch whales was strong.

"In these areas, people really want to whale again because they used to enjoy [it] and they want [an] economic boom again like in the 1970s," he said, adding that as food whale meat was more popular with older people.

"Whaling makes an image of nostalgia, it makes people think of traditional culture and the old traditional food."

Although minke whales as a whole are not considered endangered, Greenpeace says the population from which South Korea is proposing to catch animals would be threatened by whaling. Mr Park said the authorities were still surveying populations.

Tensions over traditions, cuisine and marine conservation, brought into focus by South Korea's announcement, extend across East Asia.

In China, the consumption of shark-fin soup has become controversial, with conservationists outraged over the killing of more than 70 million animals annually for the expensive dish, demand for which has grown as prosperity has increased.

According to reports, mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan account for 95 per cent of global shark-fin consumption, and this week the issue hit the headlines again, with Beijing promising that within three years, the dish would no longer be served at state banquets.

Yet efforts up to now to reduce the popularity of shark-fin soup have struggled, with a survey last year by the campaign group Green Beagle finding that many hotels that had claimed to have stopped serving the dish were still offering it.

In Ulsan in South Korea, there are about 100 restaurants serving whale meat, said Mr Park, and more in Busan further south, echoing the enthusiasm for the food in parts of Japan, where its consumption is also seen as a local tradition.

Yet conservationists believe this popularity shows the description by these countries of whaling as being "scientific" is likely to be inaccurate.

"They say it's crucial [for] the research, but all around the world there are thousands of individual scientists who study whales and dolphins. They don't kill whales and dolphins, but they still contribute to science," said Greenpeace's Ms Han.

"Japan has been doing 'scientific' whaling. These are the countries that have serious interest in commercial whaling.

"They do have a whale meat market, so obviously we believe scientific whaling is disguised commercial whaling."

South Korea's proposals have met with opposition from countries including Australia and New Zealand and it remains unclear how large any whaling operation would be, although in the past the country has caught about 600 animals a year.

 

dbardsley@thenational.ae