South Korea's whaling: Faux and cons

Activists protest at the IWC in Panama City Activists protest at the IWC in Panama City

This is the eighth meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) that I've covered; so I'm always a bit chary of the possibility that over time I've become a more grumpy, wizened, curmudgeonly old cynic than the organisation's politics might merit.

So it's been refreshing to chat with a few first-timers this year - and confirmatory that some of them, after just three days of what's been a functional meeting by recent standards, already find the waters of hypocrisy and selective memory running deep and strong.

What's got the waters flowing stronger then ever is South Korea's proposal to begin whaling around its coast under regulations permitting hunting for scientific research.

Is science the rationale? South Korea's own statement here suggests it's not, admitting that pressure is coming from fishermen who say whales are eating too many fish, lowering their catches.

These are the same fishermen from communities near the town of Ulsan who routinely snare whales in their fishing nets, accidentally or not - perhaps as many as 150 per year - and are allowed under South Korean law to sell the meat to markets and restaurants.

Minke whale poking its head out of the water (file photo) Some minke whale stocks around South Korea are already severely depleted

The logical thing from their point of view would be to regularise what happens anyway, and make the hunting easier.

That was the implication of a submission that South Korea made a few years back as part of the "IWC peace process"; if Japanese villagers were allowed to hunt whales as part of an eventual compromise deal, they said, Koreans would demand the same right.

The peace process came to naught; but it's hard to escape the conclusion that the desire to satisfy a small but genuine whaling community is the real drive behind the scientific whaling proposal too, particularly with an election looming in December.

But whether or not the South Koreans really intend to go ahead with the plan, it's been easy for them to construct a case for it.

In the debate that followed the South Korean revelation here, delegate after delegate from anti-whaling governments cited and lauded the commercial whaling moratorium that their predecessors voted through in 1982.

Strangely, they all forgot to mention the bit of the moratorium wording where they promised to review it.

The South Koreans were happy to remind them; and to help any still suffering from the collective amnesia, it goes like this:

"This provision will be kept under review, based upon the best scientific advice, and by 1990 at the latest the Commission will undertake a comprehensive assessment of the effects of this decision on whale stocks and consider modification of this provision and the establishment of other catch limits".

The Legalities of Whaling

  • Objection - A country formally objects to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) moratorium, declaring itself exempt. Example: Norway
  • Scientific - A nation issues unilateral "scientific permits"; any IWC member can do this. Example: Japan
  • Indigenous (also known as Aboriginal subsistence) - IWC grants permits to indigenous groups for subsistence food. Example: Alaskan Inupiat

Countries like South Korea and Japan are still waiting. Some whale stocks have indeed been re-assessed; but "considering modification" is not on the agenda of most IWC members, and they have no hesitation in making clear that it never will be.

Australia's commissioner Donna Petrochenko, for example, was as forthright as her populace would demand in declaring that "Australia is resolutely opposed to commercial whaling in any form" and "strongly supports the moratorium".

But that statement also makes clear that her government has no intention of honouring the international pledge it made 30 years ago. Nor does the US, UK, Germany, the Seychelles - yes, the Seychelles played a key role - or the rest of the roll call.

From a modern democratic point of view, they're quite right.

The world, as many say, has moved on, and a majority see whales as creatures to be hugged rather than harpooned. Few governments in Europe or Latin America would see their popularity rise by pledging to re-open the global whaling ban.

But what does it say to communities in South Korea, Japan, Greenland and so on who see whale hunting as quite normal?

South Korea mustered other arguments too.

On Tuesday, IWC governments voted to allow the Bequians of St Vincent and the Grenadines to continue hunting whales under "aboriginal subsistence" rules, designed for peoples with an established tradition.

The Bequians' tradition dates back about 130 years, to the time when Yankee whalers taught them how to do it.

Korea's, meanwhile, dates back 8-9,000 years - the oldest documented anywhere on the planet - with ancient rock art showing the unmistakeable coming together of harpoon and whale, and piles of bones testifying to their consumption.

But Koreans, unlike Bequians, aren't allowed to hunt anymore.

Both decisions are made according to the rules; but that's only OK if you think the rules are OK, which the Koreans don't.

The Korean "whales eat fish" argument is one of the most easily debunked in the book, and I'm sure the Koreans know it - as must the Japanese officials who used to deploy it as a justification for whaling.

But when anti-whaling countries here pointed out that it's nonsense, did they also recall that they had a chance four years ago to get Japan's signature on a conference motion saying it was nonsense, and blew it?

One delegate from a government that spoke vehemently in public against the South Korean proposal put it like this in private: "They're just frustrated".

And it makes scientific whaling their only legal option.

Are the Koreans genuinely intending to do it?

It's hard to tell. But what is clear is that the IWC's tangled and often conveniently forgotten history gives them reasons for real frustration, and the wherewithal to construct faux frustration if they choose.

As the Korean proposal puts it: "Good faith and pacta sunt servanda ('agreements must be kept') constitute the two fundamental principles of international relations."


Richard Black Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    #26 Actually we allow barbaric slaughter methods everyday in the UK, both Halal and Kosher meat is slaughtered in a way that is not humane, likewise go to a normal abattoir, you will see that the animals are scared, and not properly sedated before slaughter. Yet we allow this.

    I think that your arguement is selective.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    So if you catch a whale "accidentally", you are allowed to sell it.

    Try this --- If you catch a whale "accidentally" (it's presumably dead) then you are allowed to distribute the meat but it must be For Free !!!!

    See how many whales are caught "accidentally" with that law in place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    #20 John
    Here is a solution. The Koreans have a choice of hundreds of fish, beef, pork, lamb, goat, camel, a myriad type of poultry and even dog. Do they really need to eat whales considering how they are killed? If anyone fired a metal bolt at a cow or duck for them to painfully drown exhausted from being run down they would be stopped immediately.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    I think Korea might be addressing pressure from fishermen blaming whales, just like they will blame anything else except themselves.
    [Unsuitable URL removed by Moderator]

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Here we go again with Western eco-nuts going crazy over something that's been established in history for 1000s of years. Get over yourselves. You won't raise a finger to help North Korean refugees being repatriated and executed yet you weep at the news of animals being hunted. GET A GRIP.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    What Korea does in its own back yard is Korea's business and no-one elses.

    Kangaroo meat, ostrich meat, wild boar - all very popular these days. As it seems is western hypocrisy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Of course not!!!!!

    No one can resume whale hunting without a direct outcry so they dress it up as scientific which no one believes but rather than offend or turn away a valued trade partner the world turns a blind eye and hope no one sees their hypocrisy by tacitly sanctioning whale butchery and for what a few tins of pet food or a sushi hut here and there?

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Political and economic pressure on these governments that are so interested in the science of whales must be applied. These countries should not be allowed to creep back to whaling, not with the feeble excuse of science, or with the excuse that they are protecting fish stocks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    So thats South Korea added to my list of countries, including Iceland, Japan and Norway that I wil be visiting on my culinary tour or the Earth, might also see if I can get some dolphin and seal too.. YUM...

    Seriously though, if whaless are hunted in a sustainable way why should it be banned?

    Its the eco hippies again, who have never offered a solution to any problem ever.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Research? yeah right.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Exactly how many whales do you have to capture and kill before you established the very scientific point that they're the same type of whale?

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    If hunting for "science" is permitted then the meat should not be taken for commercial use.
    It is odd that the Korean scientists don't just collaborate with the Japanese ones. That would save money. Perhaps they don't because this has nothing to do with real science. It is time for all whale hunting to cease, to allow species a chance to survive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Aevolve @#6

    “are you seriously suggesting culling whales because they are not green?”

    No I am not, you are new here, those that know my posts will know that I like to have a bit of fun with the greenies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Even if it was science related and not just deemed that to exploit an ridiculous loophole would it still be justified? What science can possibly justify it unless its working towards something good like saving our species. When these hunts geniunly fall under the category of "science" its research for things like migrating patterns etc which is simly to satisfy curiosity. Its pathetic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    A good scientific experiment does not need to be repeated year after year, with no variation. Animals killed for scientific experiments cannot be eaten afterwards, they have to be disposed of according to specifications given in the licenses allowing the research.

    Boycott their exports!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    JonoSG: the moratorium should create more than one category for hunting. One for 'science' and the other for just 'hunting' so there wouldn't be confusion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    this is a very imotive subject. I for one am fully on the side of Leave them alone, more money is made from people whale watching than from harvesting. Considering the environment that the whales are living in, they are probably well on the way to being toxic, maybe that will be how they get their own back.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    @7. xyriach
    Your point is completely valid. History will judge 21st century human beings at least in part by the fate of the whale.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    If it comes down to Whales eating too much. Rather than us killing our competitors on the food chain would it not be better for South Korea to use scientific research to feed it people in a sustainable way?

    Native populations who live in harmony with nature and have a heritage of Whale hunting should be allowed an allocation. On the understanding that only traditional hunting methods are used.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    It's interesting that it only appears to be countries that were big time into commercial whaling for food are interested in so called scientific research whaling. I would also like to know the specific 'scientific' research that requires harpooning. There doesn't seem to have been anything published, what a surprise? Or am I just being cynical thinking it's a sham to dodge the moratorium


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