New research sheds light on whale by-catch in the #Korean peninsula –

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New published research from Professor Douglas MacMillan of the University of Kent’s School of Anthropology and Conservation has shed light on one of the most contentious issues in global conservation – the sale of skin, blubber and meat from whales caught accidentally.


In South Korea, commercial and subsistence whaling have been illegal since 1986, although domestic sales of protected Common Minke J products are allowed if the whales are caught accidently. However, due to the high price of whale meat these regulations are believed by conservation groups to have encouraged ‘deliberate by-catch’, whereby whales are intentionally killed through drowning and other means or left to die by fishermen when they become trapped in their nets, for financial gain.

Consequently, during the past ten years alone, cetacean by-catch in South Korean waters has accounted for 33 percent of global whale mortality from by-catch – a level that has allowed a thriving business and culture based on the consumption of whale meat to develop in South Korea.

Based on price data from whale meat auctions, official by-catch harvest statistics and information taken from interviews with local fishermen, maritime police and restaurant owners, Professor MacMillan believes that deliberate by-catch may take place but not at a significant scale. However, this legal ‘loophole’ may have also encouraged the illegal hunting of whales by criminal gangs using specially adapted fishing boats. As evidence, Professor MacMillan points to the marked fall in whale meat prices in South Korea between 2006 and 2010, a time when by-catch rates were relatively stable. ‘This fall in price,’ he said, ‘at a time when demand for whale meat was increasing and the supply from by-caught whales was steady, can only be explained by a rapid and substantial increase in whale meat illegally sourced. Illegal whaling rather than by-catch may actually be the more serious threat to the survival of the J-stock Minke whale in Korean waters.’  

Professor MacMillan also concluded that, despite most local people being sympathetic to the notion of cetacean conservation, the intensity of local feeling about the cultural role of whale meat and the potential for by-catch to provide fishermen with significant additional income at a time when catches are diminishing are such that it is probably not politically feasible for the South Korean government to prohibit the trade in by-caught whale meat.

‘Instead,’ he said, ‘the best immediate strategy would be to significantly improve the monitoring and management of the by-catch trade to reduce opportunities for illegal meat to be traded.

‘Another option would be to reduce the financial incentive for deliberate by-catch and illegal hunting by introducing a tax on the sale of whale products at auction, with revenues raised being reinvested in a local community fund and used to provide fishermen with equipment such as ‘pingers’ which will help avoid accidental and costly whale entanglements with fishing nets.’

The implications of this research goes beyond the issue of ceteacean by-catch as it highlights the difficulties of attempting to protect endangered species using poorly designed laws and enforcement measures arising from international agreements that are in direct conflict with local economic forces.

This study was conducted during the summer of 2007 in four towns situated on the south east coast of the Korean peninsula, all with a strong connection to by-catch: Guryongpo, Yangpo, Jeongja and Jangsaengpo. In 2010, follow-up interviews were conducted with some of the interviewees in order to reflect recent changes and update relevant data sets.

‘Cetacean by-Catch in the Korean Peninsula—by Chance or by Design?’ (Douglas MacMillan and Jeonghee Han, University of Kent) is available

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