Whale Meat Consumption Rising in South Korea
Korean Greens Say Government Should Crack Down on Bycatch
Donghae, Republic of Korea — The Bangudae petroglyphs are engraved on rocks said to be thousands of years old. They include scenes of whales and boats and people wielding nets and spears. Some people claim this is proof that whaling in Korea goes back not centuries, but millennia.
Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Today, the city of Ulsan on South Korea’s southeast coast is the center of Korea’s burgeoning whale-eating culture. There’s a waterfront esplanade with a dozen or so restaurants that serve whale meat, and an annual whale festival that attracts tens of thousands of visitors. Ironically enough, in 2005, the city hosted the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting. That was when local plans to build a whale meat processing plant were killed, a move for which Greenpeace often takes credit.
To many of us, whale meat doesn’t taste all that good — kind of like scooping out a handful of lard from a bucket and putting it into one’s mouth. But try telling that to an Inuit, or a Korean for that matter. An article by Park Soo-mee in Seoul’s JoongAng Daily contended that whales are “one of the only mammals that has the texture of fish but the flavor of meat. It’s a strangely well-matched combination.”
At the equivalent of $30 to $100 a plate, whale meat in Korea isn’t cheap. But the Korean population is fast being able to afford it, as people in neighboring China, where a burgeoning upper middle class is eating shark’s fin soup and putting a massive dent in worldwide shark populations. Ulsan consumes 80 percent of all the whale meat consumed in South Korea, and attracts busloads of tourists from all parts of the country, eager to sample whale meat.
By Korean law, a fisherman is allowed to keep a whale as long as it can be qualified as “incidental catch.” These animals are then auctioned off, bringing in big money, the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars, for the “lucky” fisherman.
It’s hard to know exactly how many cetaceans are killed by accidentally becoming entangled in fishermen’s nets each year, but according to the Korean Coast Guard, “More than 660 whales were caught each year from 2007 to 2009.” And internet blogger who lives down the street from one of Ulsan’s whale meat restaurants recently wrote: “When the sign is lit, there’s a whale for sale. I’ve been here since March — and have yet to see the sign dark.”
According to An Yong-Rock, a researcher at the Cetacean Research Institute of the Korean National Fisheries and Development Research Institute, “about 70-80 minke whales” come into Ulsan harbor dead each year. An adds that “a visual survey revealed about 16,000 minke whales in Korean waters. 8,000 in the East Sea, and another 8,000 in the West Sea.”
Yet according to researcher Choi Seok-Gwan of the same institute, nobody knows how many whales there are in Korean waters. “Korea is not like the USA, or many other countries. There are only about three people devoted full time to researching whales in South Korea. We have no idea how many whales there are.”
Whether the current harvest is sustainable is the 64 million dollar question.
Critics of the government’s bycatch policy say that because fishermen are not punished for accidental catch, there is a loophole through which poachers can operate. That’s the opinion of Oh Young-ae, Director of the Ulsan Chapter of Korean Federation for Environmental Movement, or KFEM, who says that “a lot of the meat currently found in restaurants has been obtained illegally.”
But researcher An of the Cetacean Research Institute says that satellite DNA technology allows authorities to differentiate between whale meat found in local restaurants. “Is it meat obtained legally through incidental bycatch, or was it poached, and bought via the black market?” he asks.
What is clear is that the City of Ulsan is wanting to have its cake and eat it too. There are currently whale sightseeing tours, a whale museum, and of course the whale festival, replete with its whale ice carvings and whale meat food stands and myriad signs and banners proclaiming, “We love whales.” As blogger Brian Deutsch — who spent five years living and working in South Korea — put it, “Ulsan has an ambivalent relationship with whaling.”
And Koreans do love whales. Some love to eat whales, and other simply want to look at them. Perhaps others are simply happy knowing that they exist.
Still, many people think that the Korean government isn’t doing enough to protect whales. “The current authorities aren’t cracking down hard enough,” KFEM’s Oh says. “In the eyes of the IWC, Korea is more like Japan than a country that forbids all forms of whaling.”
The rocks on which the Bangundae petroglyphs are carved are now part of the Sayeom Reservoir, which supplies water to nearby Ulsan. But the rock carvings often cannot be seen because they are periodically flooded throughout the year. Perhaps this is harbinger as to the fate of the whale in South Korean waters.
Rick Ruffin writes on a wide variety of subjects from South Korea. His latest book, "What the Politicians Aren't Saying," was published by Doyosay Publishers in the Korean language.