ROK intention to kill whales “legally” in Korean Waters

Nial Moores, July 10th 2012

Birds Korea is dedicated to the conservation of birds and their habitats in Korea and the wider Yellow Sea Eco-region. The organisation has therefore purposefully not been an active participant in long-running discussions on the possible starting of legally-sanctioned killing of whales and other cetaceans in ROK waters. However, as an organisation dedicated to the conservation (i.e. wise use) of natural resources including biodiversity, we are indeed opposed to the killing of whales and other marine mammals in Korean waters (please see

Moreover, many Birds Koreans have expressed concern over the years at the apparently increasingly widespread availability of whale meat in restaurants. Now it is time to express concern also at the ROK’s opening statement to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in Panama City earlier this month.

The opening statement by the ROK delegation aimed to remind the IWC that there is a long history of killing whales in Korea; claims that whale populations have now “recovered considerably” in the North Pacific; states a need now to conduct killing of whales to investigate the impacts of whales on fisheries; and defends the national- cultural right to kill whales. Please read the full text of the formal opening statement (see:, to
assess its merits or otherwise.

To me this statement lacks much credibility, and sadly further damages the nation’s already poor environmental image.

For example:

  1. The commercial killing of whales for food and other uses was of course practised by many nations, and was halted largely in response to collapsing populations of whales. Subsequently, all developed nations (including the ROK) have increased their capacity to kill and consume other animals; and many individual people have also modified their food practices (and their value systems) in order to improve sustainability (e.g. by switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet). There is no longer any need for people in developed nations to kill whales for food.
  2. Whales are wild species and most whale populations remain extremely low when compared to historical population levels. Killing of whales arguably has similar moral and cultural implications to the killing of some other animal species. However, morality or immorality apart, due to the low population levels of most species the killing of whales has additional conservation implications. And the ROK, as most other nations, has already formally accepted obligations contained in the Millennium Development Goals to reduce rates of biodiversity loss. We have also committed to the
    Precautionary Principle (essentially agreeing to avoid taking actions that might be environmentally harmful, even in the absence of scientific certainty).
  3. Whales remain scarce in Korean waters. Personally, I have seen whales only three or four times from commercial ferries in the Yellow Sea (this during more than 200 ferry journeys when searching for seabirds) and none yet from ferries in the Korean Strait or from land or boats in the East Sea. A literature search in 2001 for a report for WWF-Japan (Moores et al. [Eds] 2001) also turned up only two recent records of Minke Whale in ROK Yellow Sea waters. According to a recent statement provided by the IUCN, Minke Whales in Korean waters belong mainly to the so-called J-type Minke Whale. The status of this population is “uncertain, due to lack of data from Chinese and DPRK waters”, but based on the most recent assessments by the IWC Scientific Committee, the population is believed to be “depleted, and the current harvest” (due to so-called accidental catch largely by ROK fishing vessels and nets) is already believed to be unsustainable.
  4. Whale numbers in Korean waters are likely to have been at their lowest in the 1970s and early 1980s when 1,000 were being killed annually, before the 1986 moratorium came into effect. Populations of most species of economically valuable fish have also been in steep decline in Korean waters for several decades. In many cases these declines have continued on to the present. Declines in these fish species have therefore not coincided with changes in the number of whales. Rather, declines in fish species have been linked (including in government publications) to a massive increase in
    unsustainable commercial fisheries (see e.g. UNDP-GEF 2007). As in many parts of the world, declines in many fish species are likely also because of other forms of unsustainable development – including in this region the reclamation of intertidal wetlands and the impoundment of many shallow sea areas used by spawning fish (e.g. Mackinnon et al. 2012). Therefore, IUCN motion 4.027 (Relationship between fisheries and great whales) confirmed the generally accepted scientific consensus that great whales play no significant role in the current crisis affecting global fisheries. There are no data in the opening statement to the IWC to suggest that research in ROK waters would find anything different.
  5. Whales are migratory in Korean waters. Killing of whales entails impacts on the natural resource base and cultural value systems both of the ROK and also of other nations, including many which are committed to conserving whale populations. As with other groups of migratory species, this is therefore not an issue for the ROK alone; and not an issue whereby any one nation has the right to assert its cultural rights over another. This is a major rationale for international agreements (like Ramsar and the Millennium Development Goals) and for international bodies (like the IUCN) that help to build global consensus. Even though the ROK is one of the wealthiest nations on the planet, and depends much on exports and imports, our nation still has every right to protest the destruction of our natural resource base and/or cultural heritage by other nations, most especially if such nations act in breach of existing obligations. And in the same way, other nations therefore have every right (and even have a duty) to oppose the killing of whales by the ROK, Japan or Norway. This is part and parcel of understanding that an increasing number of people inhabit one small and already over-exploited planet.
  6. According to the opening statement, all ROK “whaling vessels” were scrapped in the 1980s. If this fleet has indeed already been scrapped, it does not make much economic sense to rebuild it in Ulsan (or anywhere else). This is especially so when there is at least one whale-watching vessel already in operation off Ulsan, and many ordinary people here much prefer looking at rather than killing wild species. Instead, it would make much greater economic sense to reinvigorate Ulsan City and fishing communities elsewhere through restoring coastal and intertidal wetlands and through making further improvements to the sustainability of the fishing industry. Moreover, investing more in eco-tourism and in whale-watching (in line with IUCN motion 4.115 on the non-lethal utilization of whales) would also most likely provide a greater number of long-term jobs for local communities.

For those who care about the conservation of marine biodiversity, the summer of 2012 promises to be a long one. It includes this IWC statement and the Ramsar COP in Romania (both in July), the hosting in the ROK of the East Asia Seas Congress and the Yeosu Expo (with its unintentionally ironic theme of “Living Oceans”) and in September, the IUCN World Conservation Congress on Jeju. Now, at this time more than any other, our nation needs to move ahead – not by looking backward, but instead by seeking genuine
international collaboration and environmental sustainability.



  • MacKinnon, J., Verkuil, Y.I. & Murray, N. 2012. IUCN situation analysis on
    East and Southeast Asian intertidal habitats, with particular reference to the
    Yellow Sea (including the Bohai Sea). Occasional Paper of the IUCN Species Survival Commission No. 47. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. ii + 70 pp. See also:
  • Moores N., Kim S-K, Park S-B and T. Sadayoshi (Eds). 2001. Yellow Sea
    Ecoregion: Reconnaissance Report on Identification of Important Wetland and
    Marine Areas for Biodiversity. Volume 2: South Korea. Published by WBK and WWF-Japan,
    Busan. 142 pages (published in Korean and English-language versions).
  • UNDP-GEF 2007. The Yellow Sea: Analysis of Environmental Status and
    Trends, Volume 2, Part I: National Reports – Republic of Korea. UNDP/GEF
    Yellow Sea Project, Ansan, Republic of Korea (382 pages).


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