Greenpeace Flagship Sails Into South Korean Ecopolis

By James Card

ABOARD THE RAINBOW WARRIOR II, Ulsan Bay, South Korea, April 6, 2005 (ENS) - Docked at Busan Maritime University, the Rainbow Warrior II was the headquarters for a team of Korean Federation for Environment Movement (KFEM) and Greenpeace activists.

They issued a joint statement calling for a national ban on the trade of whale meat and are campaigning to raise public awareness about the state of Korea’s whale population before the 57th meeting of the International Whaling Commission that will be held in Ulsan from May 27 to June 24.

Although South Korea observes the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on commercial whaling, and has also prohibited the hunting of dolphins and porpoises, there is a legal loophole that allows for whales to be taken and sold as an incidental by-catch of regular commercial fishing. If a whale is ensnared in a fisherman’s net, then he has the legal right to sell the meat of the dead whale for local consumption.

Since the capture of a whale is an uncommon occurrence, such scarcity drives up the prices of the meat and catching a whale is nicknamed as a “lottery of the sea.” A dead whale can be sold for $50,000 to $100,000. Some whales may be “accidentally” caught when such large amounts of money can be made.

Sources indicate that approximately 100 whales are caught as by-catch each year. The whale and dolphin meat is sold though restaurants scattered throughout the country, many of which are located in the southeastern city of Ulsan.

whale meat

Whale meat for sale at the Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival (Photo © James Card)
Whale and dolphin meat is also distributed through a nationwide network of food vendors that set up tent eateries at regional festivals. Although whale meat was not a traditional food of Koreans in ancient times, recently it has developed into a faddish delicacy.

Ulsan City has released a report stating that South Korea consumes 150 tons of whale meat annually, with 80 percent being consumed in Ulsan.

The Rainbow Warrior crew and KFEM members recently completed an 11 day survey of whales and dolphins in Korean waters. They departed from Incheon and sailed down the west coast, circumnavigated Jeju Island and worked their way to the eastern port city of Pohang.

Common and bottlenose dolphins were sighted, along with finless and Dall’s porpoise and one minke whale, the most populous of whales near the Korean peninsula. Libby Eyre, an Australian marine biologist leading the survey, said she had expected to see more marine mammals.

In the middle of the night, the Rainbow Warrior departed Busan for Ulsan. Although it is one of Korea’s largest cities with a population of approximately one million people, it isn’t even included in the Lonely Planet 5th edition travel guide to Korea.


(Photo ©Greenpeace/Lorette Dorreboom)
Massive industrialization has transformed the Ulsan area into a bleak landscape plagued with air pollution and water and soil contamination. It is home to hundreds of chemical companies including the big players like Dupont, BASF, SK, LG, and Samsung. The area is the country’s largest supplier of non-ferrous metals, and dotting the industrial zone are other factories specializing in electronics, machinery, cement and steel processing.

That evening among the crew, there was concern about news that a group of pro-whaling fishermen planned to mobilize a flotilla of boats. They would attempt to blockade the port and prevent the Greenpeace flagship from entering Ulsan Bay. The Korean fishermen contended that whales were depleting the local fisheries and consuming squid stocks. One member of the pro-whaling faction said Greenpeace was disrespecting his hometown, the historical epicenter of the Korean whaling industry.

Petroglyphs at the Bangu-dae archaeological site near Ulsan depict 46 images of whales and of human figures hunting them with harpoons, lines and boats. These rock carvings are estimated to have been created between 6,000 and 1,000 BC. Other than those early engravings, there are few historical footnotes of Korea’s whaling history.

Russian and Japanese whalers based themselves out of Ulsan in the late 1800s. Korea’s modern whaling industry was short-lived, starting in 1946 and lasting until the IWC commercial whaling moratorium was imposed in 1986.

Jim Wickens, Greenpeace oceans campaigner, emphasized that Greenpeace/KFEM and South Korea fishermen share the same concerns in protecting the sea ecosystem to insure healthy fisheries.

“We have spoken to fishermen along the south and west coast and they feel the dolphins and whales are disappearing and they want them to come back. We feel very strongly that there is no scientific evidence that whales are destroying the fish population," said Wickens. "It’s more of a matter of overfishing, pollution, and toxic threats that are destroying the fisheries and the whales and dolphins are being made as scapegoats.”

By eight o’clock the next morning the Rainbow Warrior was along South Korea’s most industrialized coast. Crew members stood on deck with steaming cups of coffee and observed the hazy shoreline covered with squat petrochemical tanks, pulp mills, numerous smokestacks and nonferrous metal refineries. Although we sailed a mile offshore, a pungent chemical stench wafted in the sea breeze and everyone noticed the foul smell emanating from the coastal industrial complex.


Captain Pete Wilcox supervises the docking of the Rainbow Warrior II at Ulsan Harbor. (Photo © James Card)
Approaching the harbor entrance was the sprawling Hyundai shipyard and farther in the horizon, the windshields of new cars glinted from the Hyundai auto plant. The Greenpeace crew was not greeted by a naval blockade of Korean whalers but by a police boat holding a gaggle of Korean journalists photographing the coming of the Rainbow Warrior. Local law enforcement authorities were alerted of a possible demonstration by the pro-waling group and three buses of riot police were stationed outside the harbor gates.

Currently the Ulsan metropolitan government is engaged in a ham-fisted public relations scheme to whitewash the city’s environmental image before the upcoming IWC annual meeting, the first international convention the city has hosted.

The city of Ulsan named itself as an “Ecopolis,” an ironic title for a city that once had to relocate residents and offer financial compensation for environment related diseases in 1986, particularly a degenerative disorder called “Onsan disease” that was linked to toxins from the nearby non-ferrous industries.

Coastal contamination is high around Ulsan and concentrations of lead and mercury are three times the legal levelm and copper is concentrated at 47 times the legal limit.

Currently under construction is a new whale museum near the strip of seafood restaurants that all sell whale meat. Ulsan also hosts an annual whale festival June 18 to 21, in a bid to garner tourist dollars. According to the local government website, the purpose of the Ulsan Whale Festival is to “cherish the memories of regional whale fishing in Ulsan and Jangsengpo, which was the main whale fishing area in the past.

With the 1986 whaling moratorium came, the Ulsan economy suffered, and citizens began relocating to other areas.

Korean city

The city of Ulsan is promoting its image as an eco-friendly city. (Photo © James Card)
When the Rainbow Warrior docked at Ulsan, a welcoming ceremony was organized that included brief statements from various public officials from the Ulsan government and the local KFEM chapter head. A class of kindergarteners arrived and presented the Greenpeace crew with crayon sketches of whales. A large inflatable whale was staked out on the dock as an attention-getting symbol and the ship was opened for tours.

Reporters gathered for a press conference in the hold below deck. Amid kayaks and coils of rope, Korean journalists viewed a presentation that indicated South Korea is second only to Japan in numbers of whales considered as accidental by-catch.

Greenpeace research shows that the ‘J’ stock of North Pacific minke whales, Balaenoptera acutorostrata, is in decline and that the Western Pacific gray whale, Eschrichtius robustus, is nearing extinction with only an estimated 100 individuals left alive, making it the most endangered whale population in the world.

KFEM activist Yoon Mi Sook ended her speech by stating, “Complaining that whales are depleting the fisheries is like complaining that woodpeckers are causing deforestation.”