South Korea has announced that it hopes to launch a programme of ‘scientific’ whaling, a development that would make it the second such country to engage in the practice alongside Japan.
The South Korean delegation to the 64th conference of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), now meeting in Panama, said on Wednesday that the move is necessary to assess the size of the populations of minke whales off the Korean coast.
“Since 2001, the Korean government has been conducting a non-lethal sighting survey of the whale population to assess the status of the stock in Korean waters,” Joon-Suk Kang, the head of the delegation told the meeting in a prepared address. “But it has turned out that this survey alone cannot identify the different whale stocks and has delayed the proper assessment of the resources.”
Seoul says that it cannot correctly identify the feeding habits of the animals or the impact of the whale population on fisheries.
The delegation did not state how many whales it aimed to catch, but its research programme will investigate minke whales migrating off the Korean peninsula. One of the populations of minke whales in the region comes from the depleted ‘J-stock’.
State signatories to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling do not need permission from the ICW to begin scientific whaling, and the ICW is in any case a voluntary organization. The move can be taken unilaterally, although Seoul said that any such whaling will not be launched before the country’s research plan had been considered by the IWC’s scientific committee.
Anti-whaling groups question the scientific legitimacy of such whaling and accuse Japan of using the scientific whaling loophole in the convention as a cover for a commercial hunt.
However, even in his speech, the delegation chief made little effort to buttress the need for research, saying that domestic fishing groups from the town of Ulsan had pressed the government to seek a resumption of ‘coastal’ whaling independent of a scientific whaling programme.
Whaling in the region dates back to 6,000 BC, and Ulsan fishermen regularly ‘accidentally’ ensnare whales in their nets. Domestic law allows such accidental catch to be sold as meat at market.
“Fishermen in this area are consistently calling for limited whaling. This is because they are experiencing disturbances in their fishing activities due to frequent occurrences of cetaceans in their fishing grounds and an increasing number of minke whales are eating away large amount of fish stocks which should be consumed by human beings,” Kang told the meeting. “We therefore hope that this commission will set in motion the review procedure as a matter of urgency to reinstate traditional coastal whaling for the future of the IWC.”
Other governments reacted negatively to the South Korean proposal. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said: “Our ambassador will speak to counterparts in South Korea at the highest levels of the South Korea government and indicate Australia’s opposition to this decision.”
“We believe that scientific whaling on this stock borders on the reckless,” said Gerard van Bohemen, head of the New Zealand delegation.
Kang, for his part, reminded his counterparts that the international whaling moratorium, approved by the IWC in 1982 and coming into effect in 1986, was supposed to be reviewed by 1990, but that review has not happened.
“I must, once again, draw your attention to Article 10(e) of the Convention Schedule which requires this commission to undertake, upon the best scientific advice, a comprehensive assessment of the effects of the decision and to consider modification of the provision,” he said.
The scientific committee has concluded since 1991 that several whale stocks could be exploited sustainably, such as the Pacific grey whale, which has fully recovered and been removed from the endangered list, and the Antarctic stocks of minke whale, which are well above the original level of abundance.
South Korea, Japan and other pro-whaling nations say that their opponents are exploiting the moratorium to grant whales a right to life under the guise of conservation.