In early July, when South Korea announced plans to restart whaling for “scientific purposes,” there was an onslaught of international criticism, but the decision was popular in this small city on the country’s southeast coast.
“We welcomed the news,” said Chun Myung-sook, owner of a whale meat restaurant in Ulsan. She speaks nostalgically about the days when whaling was legal. “Back then there were many restaurants and the area was very active. Now there are so few of us.”
Ulsan, on South Korea’s southeast coast, had been a hub of whaling since the Japanese brought their custom of whale hunting with them in the early 20th century. The whaling trade had its heyday during the 1930s, when stocks were plentiful and whales were big business. In Ulsan, large crowds would gather to see the world’s largest mammals disemboweled at the sea’s edge near Jangsaengpo port, where the few remaining whale restaurants still ply their trade.
Seoul’s initial decision to allow whaling for purposes of scientific research was announced at the International Whaling Commission’s annual meeting in Panama on July 4. The South Korean delegation argued research was needed because whales were consuming fish stocks off the South Korean coast and making it hard for fishermen to catch enough to earn a living.
Greenpeace called scientific whaling “just thinly disguised commercial whaling.” Gerard van Bohemen, head of the New Zealand delegation in Panama said, “We believe that scientific whaling on this stock borders on the reckless.”
On July 18, the South Korean government bowed to international pressure and rescinded the plan to restart whaling. “Even if it is for scientific research, we have to take into consideration that this has emerged as a sensitive issue at home and abroad,” a senior government official told South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.
Ulsan residents were disappointed, especially when their neighbour and rival Japan continues whaling.
“Our government gave up on restarting whaling but Japan has gotten to continue with it. Why is that?” asked a middle-aged man at a whale meat restaurant who declined to give his name.
But Ulsan’s raggedy whale meat trade has survived since the 1986 global ban and will likely survive this latest setback.
According to the maritime affairs ministry, 1,400 whales were caught off the coast of Korea last year. One hundred of those were mink whales, the kind served in restaurants.
The difficulties and risks associated with acquiring whale meat are reflected in its price. A simple plate with small portions of whale goes for between 40,000 and 60,000 won (about $35 to $50) in Jangsaengpo, steep compared to other meat and seafood options.
“Whale meat used to be something that poor people ate but it has become the exact opposite,” said Chun.
Much of the backlash against South Korea’s announcement was rooted in skepticism about scientific research. Critics argued that enough can be learned through research methods that don’t require killing the whales. Others wondered if the move was intended to please the fishing and agriculture communities that stand to benefit from whaling.
“It’s strange that Korea hasn’t changed from a whale-hunting to a whale-watching country. Most of the countries that used to hunt whales now have blooming tourism on whale watching. Ulsan wouldn’t be a candidate for that, too polluted and industrial – that is a reason they will stick to their culture of the consumption of whale meat,” said Choi Yae-young of the Korean Federation of Environmental Movements.
In Jangsaengpo, residents feel combative, as if how they make their living is under siege by outsiders. Banners and picket signs are positioned outdoors deploring environmental activists and calling for the restoration of commercial whaling.
One placard representing the Association of Whale Meat Sellers reads, “What kind of local environmental group would oppose local citizens’ right to live?”