Commentary by Erwin Vermeulen

Minke Whale Spyhopping in the ArcticMinke Whale Spyhopping in the Arctic
Photo: Erwin Vermeulen / Sea Shepherd
Last week South Korea was praised for their formal decision to abandon their plans for ‘scientific’ whaling. Under International Whaling Commission (IWC) rules, a formal proposal for the hunt was required by December 3. The proposal was not filed.

An international outcry ensued after South Korea unveiled their plan to resume whaling at the IWC meeting in Panama in July of this year, South Korea claimed they would use a loophole in a global moratorium that permits the killing of whales for "scientific" research. South Korea’s Commissioner announced that the country’s position was that it did not accept that whales should not be killed or caught.  He further asserted that the IWC was a forum for legal (not moral) debate, and that ‘moral preaching was not appropriate’ on the issue of whaling.

South Korea was one of the first countries to take the scientific whaling route after the global moratorium on commercial hunting was set in 1986, but the program lasted only a single season. The program was abandoned under activist and diplomatic pressure.

Jangsengpo, now incorporated into the city of Ulsan, in South Korea’s Southeast region, is, in appearance, very much like Taiji. There are whale murals on the sea wall, a bus stop shaped like a whale's tail, a yearly whale festival is held, and there is a whaling museum, complete with an old whaling vessel and harpoon. They love the great whales the same way as their infamous counterpart in Japan. Along the street across from the harbor there is a long line of whale-meat restaurants.

Where do they get their whale meat from, as South Korea has not hunted whales since 1986 when it became illegal?

There is a giant loophole in the law here. Domestic sales of meat and blubber from protected Minke whales of the so-called J-stock are allowed if the whales are caught ‘accidentally’. There are tell-tale signs that these regulations are encouraging deliberate ‘by-catch’, whereby whales are intentionally killed by netting or left to drown by fishermen when they become entangled in their nets ‘by accident’.

In 2009, South Korea and Japan accounted for over 80% of the global large-whale by-catch. Earth Island Institute reported that according to the South Korean Coast Guard, “More than 660 whales were caught each year from 2007 to 2009.” Researchers at Duke University and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland estimated that over 300,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises are killed each year as a result of by-catch in driftnets, gillnets, mid-water trawl fisheries, and in purse-seine tuna fisheries. This is almost 1,000 a day!

The IUCN recognizes by-catch as one of the greatest threats to the survival of cetaceans.

Several species of cetaceans are on the brink of extinction because of by-catch, such as the Gulf of California’s Vaquitas, New Zealand’s Maui’s dolphins, and the Philippines’ Irrawaddy dolphins.

Professor Douglas MacMillan of the University of Kent's School of Anthropology and Conservation says, in research published in January 2012, that he believes the impact by regular fisherman is small, but “that the legal ‘loophole' may have encouraged the illegal hunting of whales by criminal gangs using specially adapted fishing boats.” As evidence, Professor MacMillan points to the marked fall in whale meat prices in South Korea between 2006 and 2010, a time when ‘by-catch’ rates were relatively stable.” As another source of Minke whale meat, he identifies illegal importation from Japan.

This is possible because the ‘by-catch whaling’ loophole is exploited by both Japan and South Korea. In 2009 Scott Baker, associate director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University said DNA analysis of whale-meat products sold in Japanese markets suggests that the number of whales actually killed through this ‘by-catch’ whaling may be equal to the number killed through Japan's “scientific” whaling program. Their study found that nearly 46% of the Minke whale products they examined in Japanese markets originated from a coastal population that has distinct genetic characteristics and is protected by international agreements.

Japan and South Korea are the only countries that allow the commercial sale of products killed as ‘incidental by-catch’. The sheer number of whales represented by whale-meat products on the market suggests that both countries have an inordinate amount of by-catch,” Baker said. "The sale of by-catch alone supports a lucrative trade in whale meat at markets in some South Korean coastal cities, where the wholesale price of an adult Minke whale can reach as high as $100,000.” Given these financial incentives, you have to wonder how many of these whales are, in fact, killed intentionally." Other protected species of large whales detected in market surveys include Humpbacks, Fin whales, Bryde’s whales, and critically endangered western Gray whales.

Minke Whale in the ArcticMinke Whale in the Arctic
Photo: Erwin Vermeulen / Sea Shepherd

What can we learn from this?

-We have to stop the rogue nations that continue to whale Japan, Iceland, and Norway, to remove the precedent that gives a nation like South Korea the excuse “If they are allowed to kill whales, then why shouldn’t we?”

-The commissioner to the IWC of South Korea made the case last year that the consumption of whale meat in coastal communities such as Osong dated back to ‘prehistoric times’. This is a cultural fallacy. Just because a culture says it is OK to kill whales does not make it OK and the claim that it is historically cultural is not a valid excuse to continue or resume that practice. In fact commercial whaling for consumption only gained popularity in Korea during the late 19th century and especially during Japan’s colonization of the peninsula between1910 and1945.

In the end culture, religion, or tradition, because of their irrational nature, should never be allowed as an excuse to harm other sentient beings.

-Japan's slaughter in the North Pacific and Antarctic, and South Korea’s July proposal are an abuse of the regulations. The real purpose is to provide a supply of whale meat to a dwindling number of nostalgic customers. "Scientific whaling is an obsolete and sad consequence of a document drafted 60 years ago," said Monaco's IWC commissioner, Frederic Briand. The IWC should scrap lethal science from their books.

- Laws, regulations, and international agreements to protect cetaceans are useless without enforcement. Especially so when there is money to be made by local fisherman and criminals. Last July’s announcement before the IWC to resume whaling is viewed by some analysts as having more to do with domestic politics and economics in an election year than anything else. Economic forces and cultural sensitivities usually prevent governments, and politicians in general, from doing what is right, and makes them sacrifice ethics to whatever secures (re-) election, including appeasing fishermen and closing their eyes to irregularities in their catches. Greed and cultural perversities will find a way in, if loopholes are allowed to exist. The South Korean authorities do occasionally crack down on illegal catches. For 2010 they reported 21 so called infractions to the IWC and again 21 in 2011. Most of these cases incorporated one form or other of illegal harpooning. Not-so-accidental-by-catch is much harder to battle. No whale meat should be allowed to end up on the market, period! Neither Scientific nor ‘by-catch’ whaling would exist without that incentive.

-The South Korean delegation to the IWC said the proposed lethal research was needed "for the proper assessment of whale stocks" and that fishermen in the area are complaining that a growing whale population is eating their fish. Real science shows something different, something we call facts:

  • Whales are not depleting the oceans of fish, overfishing by humans is.
  • Whales have not recovered to pre-whaling era numbers
  • Lethal research of whales is unnecessary
  • Years of Japanese research whaling has produced nothing of value to the international scientific community

The solutions are simple, but the (political) will is absent. Praising South Korea was premature. Whales keep dying through human actions in South Korean waters every day to satisfy greed and outdated customs.

Richard Broinowski, Adjunct Professor at University of Sydney and Australia’s Ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 1987 to 1989, made the following comment in an article dating July 12, 2012:

"Sea Shepherd could up the ante, as they are threatening to do, by sending a vessel to the Sea of Japan to harass Korean whalers. If they do, crewmembers could expect rougher treatment than they experienced in the Antarctic from the Japanese. The Koreans have a very efficient fleet of around 50 maritime patrol vessels, and they could not be expected to be particularly tolerant towards interference by any foreign ships in what they regard as their own maritime backyard."

They might consider it their backyard as a score of other nations do, but in the end the seas and oceans are the homes of the whales, the fish, and all the smaller creatures, but definitely not of mankind. We are just dependents.

Sea Shepherd has faced similar odds as described by the professor and beaten them. Go ask Japan.

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