An Unexpected Issue in Southern Korea: Whale Meat

Busan is the second largest city in South Korea, and the largest city on the southern coast, so naturally it has an enormous and thriving fishing industry. Last weekend we visited the giant Jagalchi fish market and sampled some delicious raw fish.

not my best picture, but I hope it shows how gigantic the market it

not my best picture, but I hope it shows how gigantic the market it

octopus, shrimp and unidentified moving fish parts

octopus, shrimp and unidentified moving fish parts

The market was surrounded by tons of different seafood eateries, most of them specializing in a certain type or a certain preparation of seafood; grilled fish and octopus at one place, raw sea urchin at another. It was all pretty familiar until I saw one restaurant’s sign.

whale meat

Jong-in told me they served exactly what I thought they served, and my stomach inadvertently dropped. It was a whale meat restaurant.

(I try to not be judgmental about  what other cultures eat. Some foods may not seem appetizing to me, but it isn’t my place to judge what is “normal” because that definition changes from place to place. America’s copious consumption of cows is abhorrent to much of India. Westerners find eating dogs alarming, but a pig is just as smart as a dog, and I don’t see too many “Save the Pigs!” campaigns. (And yes, many of those campaigns are created in response to the awful ways that the dogs are slaughtered, which is obviously horrible, but pigs are also routinely slaughtered in terrible ways as well). Also I realize it’s somewhat hypocritical to write about eating raw seafood and then talk about my dislike of hunting a certain type of seafood in the same post).

Still, I had an emotional reaction to seeing a whale meat restaurant. Maybe it’s because I grew up loving to learn orcas and dolphins, like many little girls. Maybe it’s because they’re beautiful animals. Maybe it’s because I just finished reading Voices of the Ocean and I have a new appreciation for how intelligent orcas and dolphins are, and how they have names and speech patterns (it’s a great book, very informative and engaging). Or maybe it’s because they are endangered, and  hunting endangered species should always be a criminal activity.

Unlike Japan, it is illegal to hunt whales in South Korea. (The Korean government was set to approve a bill that would allow the hunting of whales for “scientific purposes”, (similar in nature to Japan’s “scientific” whale hunting), but thankfully it was dropped due to international criticism).   However, if a whale is caught accidentally, as a “bycatch” of other fishing, then it legal to then auction off the whale. Although the government is strict about this law, it seems like an awfully slippery slope. Korean green groups are understandably calling for even stricter regulations.

Whale meat is actually gaining popularity in Korea. There are hundreds of whale meat restaurants in Korea, over a hundred in the southern city of Ulsan alone. According to the Korea Times, most of these restaurants obtain their meat illegally. There have not been enough studies conducted about the quantity of whales in Korean waters, so no one knows if the current “accidental” and illegal harvest is sustainable.

The UN environmental program estimates that nearly 200 species go extinct every day. If we stop hunting whales, hopefully they will not end up a part of that dreadful statistic.

For more information about advocacy, here are some useful links:

Pacific Whale Foundation

NRDC: Save Biogems

WDC In Action

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