Korea’s change of heart on scientific whaling is welcome

The announcement yesterday (12 July) by Australian Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, that his South Korean counterpart, Mr Kim Sung-hwan, had indicated plans for scientific whaling would not proceed was a welcome development.

The Korean government’s change of heart has come within a week of the announcement at this year’s International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting that Korea was intending to start a ‘scientific’ whaling programme.

The Korean government’s U-turn had already been hinted at by a senior Korean official the day before, and while no further official announcements have been made by Korea, it seems the plans are on hold for the time being at least.

IFAW welcomes the recognition by the Korean government that so-called ‘scientific’ whaling is not the way forward. As IFAW, many other organisations, scientists and governments the world over have pointed out, there are in fact plenty of non-lethal alternatives for studying whales.

The question of course is why Korea’s plans got off the ground in the first place, only to be unceremoniously dumped within days. As the Korean representative at the IWC outlined when making the announcement, pressure from fisheries interests in certain parts of Korea has driven the issue. When these fisheries constituencies combine with Korean domestic politics in advance of December national elections it is a potent partnership.

However, there is a deeper and more troubling motive. Throughout the failed “compromise” package deal discussions in recent years at the IWC, there was a general feeling loudly expressed by Korea that they were being penalised for implementing and abiding by the IWC moratorium while Japan, Norway and Iceland were to be rewarded for circumventing the moratorium with newly legitimised whaling quotas if the package deal had gone through. This sentiment is understandable and the legitimisation that would have been rewarded to countries contravening the moratorium was one of the many reasons IFAW opposed the deal.

But what we have seen this year at the IWC, with Korea suggesting it would start scientific whaling, was the folly of the approach taken by certain usually conservation-minded countries in pushing that deal. All it has done has encouraged Korea to pursue its own whaling agenda as it looked across the Sea of Japan at its recalcitrant neighbour potentially being rewarded. We can only hope that countries who supported the deal last time will think twice about implications of any future “compromise” suggestions.

Nonetheless, we must congratulate all governments who spoke out against Korea’s plans. Undoubtedly the swift and vociferous reaction by Prime Ministers, governments, NGOs and media, both outside and inside Korea, has had an impact. As in other whaling countries, while it may be the fisheries agencies who announce the policies, it is the Foreign Affairs departments who have to deal with the aftermath. Clearly the Korean Foreign Minister saw this as an issue simply not worth the hassle and opprobrium that is routinely received by his counterparts in other whaling nations.

Interestingly, Korea has recently initiated a big push in Australia to advertise itself as a tourist destination. Announcing a plan to go whaling at the same time probably wasn’t included in the Korean tourist board’s marketing strategy.

But we also have to hope that the Korean change of heart is being driven by economics and science. The Korean government must be acutely aware of the failures by Japan and Iceland to find successful markets for the meat from their own scientific whaling or to produce scientific findings of any value from killing whales. Nor has the IWC’s Scientific Committee identified any issues that might require lethal takes of whales in the North Pacific. Hence any scientific justification by Korea is likely to be very weak and not in line with any research needs identified by the Committee

The Korean government must also be aware that the combination of commercial catches up to 1986, ongoing bycatch in fishing gear and illegal whaling have caused substantial depletion of minke whales around Korea. The IWC Scientific Committee is still in the process of reviewing North Pacific minke whale populations but all the evidence indicates serious depletion regardless of current debates about population structure. It is possible that the ongoing combination of bycatch and illegal takes is still causing serious problems for a small population (estimated at between 550 and 900 minke whales for waters east of the Korean Peninsula and between 700-1500 west of the Korean Peninsula). Although these abundance estimates are minimum numbers, the current estimated deaths are still around 10% of these populations. Any whaling by Korea would be in addition to these already serious concerns and could have drastic conservation implications.

In light of these ongoing concerns, it is important that Korea abandons any future consideration of scientific whaling. Let us hope that last week’s dipping of the toe in the water isn’t heralding a process whereby Korea continuously floats the idea in the hope that when it actually transpires the world will just accept it.

IFAW certainly won’t. We will continue to urge Korea to turn its back on whaling for good and protect its whales for future generations. There is simply no humane way to kill a whale. Responsible whale watching offers a humane and economically viable alternative that is better for whales and provides more sustainable livelihoods for coastal communities.

Korea has a choice; continue to try and defend the indefensible or invest in its fledgling whale watching industry and join the emerging global consensus for whale conservation.

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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
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