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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 June, 2005, 15:57 GMT 16:57 UK
'Accidental' whaling scrutinised
By Richard Black
BBC environment correspondent in Ulsan, South Korea

"Whale embassy", Ulsan, South Korea
Not your typical embassy
It's not the typical design of embassy - just a green tent surrounded by colourful images of whales wrought in metal and stone.

It is in fact the "Whale Embassy" of Ulsan, set up by environmental groups on the shore, next to the imposing Whale Museum, which celebrates the region's long association with whales and whaling.

The embassy was set up by a local group, the Korean Federation for Environmental Movements (KFEM), and Greenpeace International. Their snap line is that it's "there to give whales a voice" - to say what whales would say if they could speak.

And its message to the citizens of Ulsan is to stop loving whales for their taste, and start loving them for themselves.

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Ulsan's association with whales and whaling goes back for millennia - at nearby Bangudae there are petroglyphs, pieces of rock art, which may be as much as 8,000 years old, depicting hunts in progress.

In the modern era, hunting began in earnest around a century ago, when Russian fishermen set up camp around Ulsan's mighty harbour; it gained renewed vigour under the Japanese occupation.

After the end of World War II, whales were a valuable source of food in a time of scarcity and hunger; and hunting continued until the International Whaling Commission (IWC) introduced a global moratorium in 1986.

Long association

Every year for a decade or so, Ulsan has celebrated its past with a whaling festival in two town parks, one just by the Whale Museum and, now, the Whale Embassy.

The accidental catch is not accidental
Ye-Yong Choi, KFEM
Children frolic and demand sweets from their parents, old women sit chatting at the food stalls, and loud, mournful song assaults the ear-drums.

"Even from long back in history, Ulsan is known for its whales," one of the festival organisers Man Woo Lee told the BBC News website.

"But now they're disappearing, and the whaling culture is becoming extinct; so we're trying to revive it, and let people know how it was back in the past ages."

In the city's restaurants, whale eating is anything but extinct. A 200m walk from the Lotte Hotel where the IWC meeting takes place brings me to a backstreet lined end to end with seafood restaurants.

Bangu-Dae petroglyphs

In the early-morning sun the freshly mopped floors sparkle; the water tanks are crammed with fish, eels and crabs waiting for the lunchtime tide of customers.

Outside one restaurant, one owner - who didn't want to give her name - is happy to chat as she lays out mushrooms to dry in the sharp sunshine.

"For a long time, we've eaten whales as part of our staple diet," she tells me. "Some people have a special affinity for whales, and they are my customers here; but unfortunately, there's not as much meat available as there used to be."

The price varies, she said, between US$20 and US$100 per kilo depending on the cut.

Just at the end of the street is a small but heavily stocked fish market - and there, on a stall just inside the door, are various cuts of whale, freshly washed, waiting to be bought.

Bad publicity

None of the market traders, though, will discuss their business - they've had too much interest, too much bad publicity, they say.

Much of that interest centres on where the meat comes from - because, officially, Korean fishermen are not allowed to catch whale.

Find out about the different endangered whale species.

"Korea has the policy of 'release alive' since 1998," Korea's Whaling Commissioner, Barng Ki Hiok, told me, "and the Korean government persuades fishermen to let the whales go uninjured.

"Also, it is illegal for fishermen to carry a gun, a rifle, a long spear or a harpoon."

Nevertheless, dead whales do come back to shore. According to data from the South Korean government, the IWC calculates that Korean fishermen catch about 90 minke whales each year.

This haul is usually labelled "by-catch", or accidental catch, but some of it is deliberate. The Report of the IWC Infractions Sub-Committee, prepared for this meeting, states: "The Republic of Korea sincerely regretted the reported incidents of illegal catches by its nationals in 2004".

According to the IWC's Scientific Committee, enough minke whales are taken that the local population, the J-stock, could be seriously affected.

Whale meat in a shop in Ulsan, BBC
Whale meat can be found in the fish market
"This is the first year of an in-depth assessment by the Scientific Committee to answer just that question," said Doug DeMaster, the Committee's chair, "and hopefully next year we'll have the answer.

"We did look at this in our 2003 meeting, and we found out that in the worst-case scenarios, the by-catch levels at these orders of magnitude were not sustainable.

"These were worst-case scenarios; but at least you can certainly craft a plausible argument that this level of by-catch is potentially problematic for this particular stock."

Ye-Yong Choi, from the KFEM, a prime mover behind the Whale Embassy, has a simple explanation for the level of by-catch.

"In Korea, there is a market for whale," he told me, "and the whale market needs meat from any source. The accidental catch is not accidental."

Nighttime butchery

He and other activists say they have seen whales being brought to shore and cut up at night, the various parts taken away by traders.

They have pitched the embassy in its current site because they fear South Korea's whale catch is about to go up rather than down.

Local and national authorities plan to build a scientific research centre, which will contain a whale-meat factory.

KFEM believes the facility will make it easier for the whale meat trade to flourish; but Barng Ki Hiok says the opposite is true.

Divided opinions in Ulsan

"Once such a facility is built, meat must go there for processing," he told me. "Then we can easily detect illegal trade. Therefore, construction of such a facility is the best way to prepare for the future, I think."

Just before the IWC meeting, when the issue first leaped into the media spotlight, the South Korean government indicated that the factory might not go ahead - but Barng Ki Hiok indicated that it will.

The Whale Embassy will close just as IWC delegates leave Ulsan at the end of this week's meeting; it has been there for nearly three months, and activists say that during that time their relations with local people have changed, with hostility softening and supplies of food and other essentials brought regularly.

Young people with whom I chatted in Ulsan believe that whale meat is an older person's dish, a taste forged in the harsh after-flames of World War II.

If they are right, the trade which makes a whale worth up to US$100,000 will die a natural death, and spare South Korea the opprobrium it will undoubtedly face from some western governments and lobby groups if the by-catch rates do not come down.

South Korea insists the catches are accidental


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