A 4.5-meter-long minke whale found dead in a fishing net is being lifted onto shore from a boat at Geojin port in Gangwon Province, Tuesday. The whale weighing 1 ton was later handed over to the fishermen who caught it after Sokcho Coast Guard cleared them of illegal hunting. / Yonhap
By Lee Hyo-sik
The price of whale meat, a delicacy for Koreans residing along the eastern coastal area, is surging due to a shortage following tighter rules on the distribution and consumption of whale meat.
However, skyrocketing cost may tempt fishermen into more active whale hunting, with one whale trading at about 100 million won ($98,000), officials said.
According to the Ulsan Coast Guard and environmental civic groups, Friday, it has become more difficult to eat whale meat in the industrial city of Ulsan as the value of whale meat increased dramatically since Jan. 1 when the government introduced a ``distribution certificate’’ for all whale meat sold and consumed in the country.
Under the system, whales accidently caught in fishing nets or found dead on the waters are allowed to be consumed and given the permissible certificate by the Coast Guard.
Illegally hunted whales cannot be certified and those dealing with the uncertified meat are subject to prosecution.
This is expected to encourage more fishermen to engage in illegal poaching of the endangered species.
``The price of whale meat has nearly doubled over the past year in Ulsan, due largely to a supply shortage. Fishermen seem to be cautious about putting illegally hunted whales on the market since the introduction of a distribution certificate,” said Oh Young-ae, secretary general of the Korea Federation for Environmental Movement of Ulsan. “In reality, up to 80 percent of whales consumed every year are illegally hunted.’’
Oh said it is impossible to tally how many whales are poached each year, adding that the price of whale meat will likely remain high for the time being thanks to the tighter rules.
On Tuesday, an 8.5-meter-long minke whale was caught in a fishing net in waters off Pohang and sold at 96 million won ($87,000), up sharply from 40 million won a year earlier. The wholesale value of a 5-meter-long minke whale also soared to 35 million won from last year’s 15 million won.
``We are worried that higher prices could prompt more fishermen to illegally hunt whales. Besides issuing certificates, the police should do more to check whether distributed whale meat is legal or not. They also need to crack down on whale poaching,’’ she said.
But Ulsan Coast Guard disputed Oh’s claim, saying the police have been verifying the sources of whale meat and strengthening the inspection of suspected whale poachers.
``There has been no case of illegal whale hunting this year in Ulsan. As far as I know, the situation is the same for Pohang and other port cities. We think the introduction of the certificate system has discouraged fishermen from poaching the endangered species,’’ said Jeong Hyun-seok, detective at the Ulsan Coast Guard.
What it takes to find dead whales?
With the price of whale meat hitting record-highs, more residents along the East Coast and fishermen are looking to hit a jackpot by discovering dead whales on the beach or caught in fishing nets.
Those seeking to reap the rewards should report the dead whale to the Coast Guard or other law enforcement authorities after discovering one.
Under a notification announced early this year by the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, taking concrete action to claim ownership is as important as reporting it to the authorities.
For instance, a 3.9-meter-long minke whale was found dead in waters off a marine park in Ulsan on April 23. The animal was first reported by a female tourist.
But she did not make any moves to assert its possession. Instead, a resident of a nearby fishing village, who reported it to the police a minute later than the tourist, tied the whale up with a rope and dragged it to the shore.
The Ulsan Coast Guard awarded the possession of the whale to the villager who took visible action for its ownership, citing the ministry’s notification. The animal sold for 25 million won.
Residents and restaurant owners in southeastern coastal areas say that uncertified whale meat is still traded through wholesalers, with a box of 20-kilogram whale meat trading at 1.4-1.5 million won behind the scenes between brokers and restaurant owners.
It is reported that about 100 whales that are caught in nets or found dead are distributed legally, but more than 300 whales are being consumed at about 200 whale meat restaurants across the nation.