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BROCHURE RACK

South Korea’s whale bycatch ‘loophole’

19/01/2012 19:46:26

Concerns about 'deliberate' bycatch

January 2012: New research is shedding light on the sale of skin blubber and meat from whale bycatch.

In South Korea, commercial and subsistence whaling have been illegal since 1986, but domestic sales of protected common minke products are allowed if the whales are caught accidently.

However, due to the high price of whale meat these regulations are believed by conservation groups to have encouraged ‘deliberate by-catch', whereby whales are intentionally killed through drowning and other means or left to die by fishermen when they become trapped in their nets, for financial gain.

Consequently, during the past ten years alone, cetacean bycatch in South Korean waters has accounted for 33 per cent of global whale mortality from bycatch - a level that has allowed a thriving business and culture based on the consumption of whale meat to develop in South Korea.

Illegal hunting of whales by criminal gangs
Professor Douglas MacMillan of the University of Kent's School of Anthropology and Conservation led the research and believes bycatch may take place but not at a significant scale. He based his assessment from whale meat auctions, official bycatch harvest statistics and interviews with local fishermen, maritime police and restaurant owners.

However, the professor also says 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.

‘This fall in price,' he said, ‘at a time when demand for whale meat was increasing and the supply from bycaught whales was steady, can only be explained by a rapid and substantial increase in whale meat illegally sourced. Illegal whaling rather than by-catch may actually be the more serious threat to the survival of the minke whale in Korean waters.'

'We must reduce opportunities for illegal meal to be traded'
Professor MacMillan also concluded that, despite most local people being sympathetic to the notion of cetacean conservation, the intensity of local feeling about the cultural role of whale meat and the potential for bycatch to provide fishermen with significant additional income at a time when catches are diminishing are such that it is probably not politically feasible for the South Korean government to prohibit the trade in bycaught whale meat.

‘The best immediate strategy,' he said, ‘would be to significantly improve the monitoring and management of the bycatch trade to reduce opportunities for illegal meat to be traded.

‘Another option would be to reduce the financial incentive for deliberate bycatch and illegal hunting by introducing a tax on the sale of whale products at auction, with revenues raised being reinvested in a local community fund. This fund could be used to provide fishermen with equipment such as "pingers" which will help avoid accidental and costly whale entanglements with fishing nets.'

The implications of this research goes beyond the issue of ceteacean bycatch as it highlights the difficulties of attempting to protect endangered species using poorly designed laws and enforcement measures arising from international agreements that are in direct conflict with local economic forces.

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