[Viewpoint] Give whalers a chance to be heard

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[Viewpoint] Give whalers a chance to be heard

Around this time every year, the “Whale War” begins. It all starts with the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission. While Korean media have not covered the topic very much until now, it has long been a hot issue in the international arena. Japan, for example, takes the issue very seriously. Newspapers publish fiery editorials around the time of the annual meeting to argue that the country should resume coastal whaling.

This year, though, Korea was the hot topic. After the Korean delegation announced a plan to begin scientific whaling, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard abruptly lodged a protest. BBC reported the event, and other major international media organizations joined the criticism.

This year’s presentation was not the first time that Korea has spoken about the need to resume whaling. And yet, the media’s exaggerated coverage prompted lawmakers to criticize the government for “bringing about an international embarrassment.” Environmental groups held protests.

On the other hand, fishermen issued a statement welcoming the proposal and popped champagne. Amidst the heated confrontation, the government backed down from its strong argument in favor of whaling.

Among all animals on our planet, whales are perhaps the most sensitive to hunting. The species once faced possible extinction thanks to excessive whaling from the 18th to the 20th centuries.

Whaling for food wasn’t the problem. Only a small number of people from a few countries, like Japan, eat whale meat. But in the past, whale products had broad industrial applications. Oils were used to create margarine, luxurious candles and cosmetics, and the former Soviet Union used whale oil in its military. The ambergris from intestines of sperm whales was as valuable as musk, and whale intestines were used to make vitamins and hormone drugs. Whiskers were used to make toothbrushes, while tendons were used as tennis racket strings. Whale parts had truly versatile uses.

Then, superpowers from around the world jumped into whaling. As a result, the number of blue whales decreased from hundreds of thousands in the 18th century to as little as 300 in early 1960. So in 1963, hunting of blue whales was banned, and environmental groups began raising their voices. The United States imposed a complete ban on whaling in 1971 and pressured other countries to follow.

At the time, the former Soviet Union and Japan were the two largest whalers, together harvesting about 80 percent of the whales hunted. Above their protests and others, the International Whaling Commission announced a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982.

For certain, not all countries pledged to comply. Norway and Iceland, for instance, protested the decision and continued whaling. Denmark continued to permit whaling by Greenland’s indigenous people. And in so-called “scientific whaling,” Japan hunts about 1,000 annually, mostly for consumption by humans as food.

In the latest International Whaling Commission meeting, Japan threatened to walk out of the group next year if it didn’t win permission for minke whaling. Denmark also warned that it could leave the group should its request to broaden whaling permitted by indigenous people be denied.

While countries that engage in whaling for consumption as food are raising voices, the media hasn’t reported the position in fair balance with the many reports given to whaling opponents.

Since the ban on coastal whaling was imposed in 1986, Korea has respected its international commitments. It also actively engaged in the proactive monitoring of the illegal whaling. Of the 23 reports of illegal hunting from around the world last year, 21 were made by Korea.

So, compared to those threatening to walk away from the agreement, Korea is perhaps the only country that has kept its promise faithfully, despite our people’s long traditional of preparing whale meat for human consumption.

In the meantime, whales in the waters surrounding out country continue to grow in number. To feed themselves, they eat fish in numbers equivalent to about 12 percent of Korean fishermen’s loads. So today, fishermen are competing against whales.

This is what the government hopes to hold a scientific study: to examine the disturbed balance in the food chain in Korea’s coastal waters after three decades of protecting a single species.

Isn’t it unfairly harsh and perhaps imprudent for the media to criticize the government for planning a survey to examine the seas that feed 50 people?

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Sunny Yang
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