Controversy over a giant of the seaThe annual whale festival at the Jangsaengpo wharf in Ulsan had a carnival atmosphere, featuring tacky rides and merchants selling goods that bore no relationship to the industry that used to sustain the area. At this year’s event, which ended Sunday, a row of temporary restaurants housed in tents was selling whale meat served in two different styles: sashimi or roasted, which tastes like fatty beef. Not far from there was the new Whale Museum and a tent set up by Greenpeace, at which volunteers were body painting whales on children.
The next day, this former whaling capital became the center of attention for both pro- and anti-whaling groups as it hosted the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission, which ends today.
During the conference, pro-whaling and anti-whaling nations were deadlocked over the so-called Revised Management Scheme, which was considered a major step toward lifting the ban on commercial whaling that has existed for two decades. As a result, the ban was upheld.
Japan, a pro-whaling nation, wanted to double its quota for catching whales for scientific purposes in the Antarctic, but the commission passed non-binding resolutions seeking its withdrawal from the scientific whaling program and ending the killing of whales in its research. Japan has been catching more than 400 whales a year, with most of the meat ending up being sold for human consumption.
Meanwhile, Korea’s Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries said it wanted to begin whaling for scientific research.
“The biggest issue was the proposed resumption of whaling, and that’s why we are here,” said Jim Wickens, an anthropologist and Greenpeace International member.
“Whales stand for something in our hearts and for our children. Whale meat is neither a necessity nor a traditional food,” said Choi Ye-yong, the planning director of the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement. “It does not make sense that animals that are on the verge of extinction are caught because of a minority of epicures.”
Two decades ago, Jangsaengpo was a bustling town, with many whaling ships docked at its wharf, and it was considered one of the richest sections of Ulsan as a result of the industry.
“When a boat whistle echoed from the harbor of Jangsaengpo, men and women took buses to get a glimpse of the town spectacle: whales caught by fishermen being sent to professional butchers and cut up,” an Ulsan taxi driver said.
With their enormous size, some whales could not be loaded onto the ships and were instead tethered to the ships and towed. Once a whale was delivered to a butcher shop, the butchers started cutting it apart layer by layer, while laborers carried endless boxes containing whale meat. In those days, large quantities of whale meat were sold in fish markets, and it was cheap.
Korea joined the worldwide moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, although whales that are accidentally caught in fishing nets can be sold and consumed. As a result, drastic changes occurred in Jangsaengpo and its whaling scene, and whale meat became expensive. For example, 200 grams (seven ounces) of cooked whale meat costs 40,000 won ($40), and an entire whale commands a price of 30 million won.
Jangsaengpo’s population declined so significantly that the district was merged with another one. Still, Jangsaengpo remains a popular destination in Korea for people who want to taste whale meat.
Over the past few years, the number of whale meat restaurants has actually increased in Jangsaengpo as tourists from other parts of Korea and older people patronize them for nostalgic reasons. There were only three whale meat restaurants before the moratorium, but the number increased to more than 10 as whale meat became difficult to find elsewhere.
“Whale meat lovers began flocking to Jangsaengpo, and whale meat restaurants became prosperous. More restaurants started opening here,” said the owner of “Cheonghae Bokea,” one such restaurant.
She said she did not know how many whales are caught, and how they are captured, but she noted that a considerable amount of meat is supplied to the restaurants.
“I began eating whale meat a long time ago, maybe 50 years ago,” said a man in his 70s who was eating whale meat in a restaurant. “In the old days, poor people ate whale meat and it was cheap. Whale meat tasted good in the past, but today the taste is not the same.”
Not everyone in Ulsan finds whale meat appetizing. “I tried it once, but it wasn’t to my taste,” said an Ulsan resident who was visiting the whale museum with his children. He said he is personally against whaling.
Whaling in Korea dates back to the prehistoric era, as is evidenced by rock carvings, as well as bones and fishing spears found in Ulsan that are 5,000 years old. There are records from the various Korean dynasties describing the use of whale oil but no record of consuming whale meat. But after liberation from Japanese colonial rule and the Korean War, Koreans who could not afford red meat began to eat whale meat as a source of protein.
With whales disappearing from the Atlantic Ocean due to overfishing, American, Russian and Japanese whalers started catching whales in large numbers in the East Sea (Sea of Japan) in the 19th century, mostly for their oil. Russia reached an agreement with the Joseon Dynasty to establish a whaling base in Jangsaengpo, and from 1909 to 1945, when Korea was under Japanese control, Japanese whalers dominated the industry here.
But, due to heavy fishing by Europeans, Americans and Japanese, the larger species of whales disappeared from the ocean, including the Blue whale as well as the Humpback and Gray whales. Modern whaling by Koreans began only after the liberation from Japan, when Korean whalers took over from the Japanese. Now, most whales caught are Minke whales, which are much smaller.
The number of whales accidentally caught in the East Sea is unusually high, environmentalists say. According to Mr. Choi of the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement, out of 226 unintentional whale catches around the world in 2003, 196 were by Korean and Japanese fishermen. On Monday, two Minke whales were caught in another whaling city, Pohang, and the day before three whales were caught in Pohang and Uljin.
Whaling equipment such as harpoons can be easily purchased in Ulsan and Pohang, and there is evidence that illegal whaling continues in Korea, Mr. Choi said. Because whales are mammals and need to breathe, they need to swim above the surface, which makes them easy targets.
When the mammals are caught unintentionally, fishermen are required to report the catch to the National Maritime Police Agency for inspection, before the meat is auctioned off. The inspectors look for signs that the whale was caught intentionally, such as spear wounds. Sometimes, whalers try to make the catch appear accidental after spearing the whale with a trident by cutting the rope connecting the trident, which has lodged in the whale’s body, and waiting until the wound heals to report the case, or by processing the whale on the boat.
“It is difficult to single out trident wounds from other wounds on dead whales because whales get many scratches swimming in the sea,” Mr. Choi said. Environmentalists are demanding the use of metal detectors in checking for evidence of intentional catches.
However, a National Maritime Police Agency official in Pohang said most of the whales are accidentally caught in fishing nets placed in the country’s waters ― 140 whales this year alone by fishermen in Pohang ― and the agency has discovered only one incident of illegal whaling this year.
The mammals can easily die when they are caught in a net because it is difficult for them to escape. “Whales are family-oriented and move in a group. If a baby whale is caught, the mother whale hovers around the whaling ship and is caught, followed by others in the family,” Mr. Choi said.
Regarding suspicions that fishermen purposely draw their nets in areas where whales migrate, the official said, “If that were the case, one fisherman should catch a lot of whales at once, or over and over.” The official, however, said he could not explain the large number of whales caught in Korea.
“There are 26 whale meat restaurants in Ulsan, including Jangsaengpo, and 10 in Pohang, and 200 raw fish restaurants in Busan that sell whale meat. The amount of whale meat traded is enormous,” Mr. Choi said.
“We have witnessed the purchase of illegal harpoons in Pohang harbor and it is quite easy for whales to be killed in Korean waters,” Greenpeace’s Mr. Wickens said.
Of course, not everyone is happy with the moratorium on whaling. The Maritime Affairs Ministry and Ulsan city government called for measures to allow whaling again in Korea, and restaurant owners and former whalers in Jangsaengpo want commercial whaling resumed.
“These countries ― Britain, the United States, Australia and New Zealand ― are the ones that brought big whales to extinction,” said Byeon Chang-myeong, the chairman of a group advocating the resumption of commercial whaling. “They caught whales not for food but for their oil. As whales were no longer needed for their oil [with the development of petroleum and other fuels] and whale oil was no longer profitable, they wanted us to stop whaling too.”
Mr. Byeon said the number of smaller whales, such as Minke whales, has increased, and the government should allow fishermen to catch them in sustainable numbers that allow for their continued survival.
by Limb Jae-un