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Korea's 'Lottery of the Sea'
Salvaging dead whales
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
Published 2006-12-18 19:04 (KST)   
During the winter months, the waters off Korea teem with whales and dolphins, much to the delight of whale watchers young and old. Invariably, as the number of whales increases, so too do the accidental deaths of these majestic beasts as the result of being caught in fishing nets or struck by boats -- especially the high-speed ferries operating between South Korea and Japan. While this is viewed as an unfortunate fact by many, others see it as a potential windfall.

On Dec. 6, a newspaper article jubilantly described the recovery of three dead minke whales off Korea's North Gyeongsan province in the East Sea as a "lottery of the Sea." The first two whales were discovered near Yeongdok and were worth, respectively, 9,250,000 won (US$9,970) and 6,300,000 won ($6,789). The third whale, nearly 5 meters long, was discovered near Pohang, but its worth has not been determined yet.

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On Dec. 15, a Korean fishing boat captain discovered a 7.9-meter, 4.4-ton minke whale near Ulju, also in North Gyeongsan province. He quickly reported it to the maritime police, and the whale was salvaged.

On Dec. 16, a dead 6.6-meter, 4.5-ton minke whale was recovered by a Korean fisherman near Goheung, South Jeolla province. While the minke whale appears to be relatively numerous in the East Sea and is salvaged quite often along the eastern coast of Korea, it is seldom found along the coast of the Jeolla provinces.

According to the maritime police, this year there have been six whales caught in nets in South Jeolla, but this was the first minke whale. The whale was to be examined and then, depending on the results of the examination, the whale would probably be auctioned off.

Since the 1986 global whaling moratorium, it is illegal to hunt or capture whales in Korea -- violations of the law are punishable by up to three years in prison and fines up to 20,000,000 won ($21,550). However, whales that are caught in nets or accidentally killed and reported to the maritime authorities are then auctioned off and the proceeds given to the fisherman who discovered the whale. Thus the whales have earned the popular nickname "lottery of the sea."

In 2004, the monthly average number of whales accidentally caught in nets was three or four, but in the last couple of years this number has steadily increased. Partially because the number of minke whales found off the coast of Korea seems to have increased, as well as the number of nets and fishermen. This increase in the number of dead minke whales salvaged seems to have driven the price down as the meat has become more available.

According to the East Sea Maritime Police, in the Gangneung/Samcheok area of Kangwon province during the past three years there has been a monthly average of 5.2 dead whales discovered, but during the past couple of months the number has steadily increased. Eleven whales were recovered in September, thirteen whales in October, and 12 whales in November. According to Hankuk Ilbo (Dec. 6, 2006) there were 80 dead whales discovered and salvaged this year in Korea, but considering that the whale breeding season has just begun, this number is expected to rise even higher.

In the early 2000s the average price of a salvaged whale was about $28,000, but in late 2003 or early 2004, the price spiked to as high as $100,000, but apparently has fallen again.

Naturally, with so much money at stake there have been allegations in the past that organized crime was taking part in poaching expeditions. The whales were harpooned or shot with guns and then harvested at sea -- the meat was then sold for a lower price to the increasing number of restaurants that sold whale meat. Not only was poached whale meat cheaper, but it was generally fresher than the salvaged whale meat, which was first inspected and then later auctioned off.

While whale meat for most Koreans is not a traditional food, it has gained some popularity over the past couple of years for its "reputed" health benefits. This has lead to an increase in the number of restaurants throughout the southern part of Korea, especially in the Gyeongsan provinces that serve whale meat.

Often the salvaged whales died as a result of being accidentally caught in large fishing nets. Often these large fishing nets are destroyed by the whales and their fight to escape them. Thus it is no wonder that many fishermen hope that the whales are found in the wreckage of their nets. These accidental encounters between the whales and fishermen often prove costly to both.

However, not all encounters are accidental. It has been suggested by some environmentalists that the fishermen intentionally place their nets in areas that the valuable minke whales are known to pass through in hopes that they will become entangled in their nets.

Because of these and other allegations, the Korean maritime police are keeping a diligent watch in order to eliminate any illegal activity on the fishermen's part.

With the growing number of whales in Korean waters, there are increased calls for the restart of Korea's whaling industry. In 2004 proponents argued that there were "more than enough whales, especially the minke" to justify Korean whaling. With Iceland and Norway's recent whale harvests and the continued Japanese "hunts for research purposes" the argument for resuming Korea's whaling seems to be gaining strength.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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