By Ric O’Barry
The Republic of Korea in recent years has become one of the most important nations in the global debate over dolphins and whales. It is an extraordinary time here, one that I am witnessing in my trip over here for a conference and a related side-trip to Jeju Island (pop 500,000) about steps that should be taken to release illegally captured dolphins back into the wild. A delegation of the conference attendees, including members of government, veterinarians from the Seoul Zoo, marine mammal scientists, and activists, went to the dolphinarium known as “Pacific Land” to witness the depressing show which included trained monkeys, sea lions and five illegally captured dolphins. The dolphins were preforming in a small indoor tank just a few hundred meters from the sea they were stolen from.
Korea was once a whaling nation, but stopped actively harpooning whales. Today, the nation seems divided between the coastal cities like Ulsan and urban centers like the capitol, Seoul. Ulsan sits across a narrow strait from the main whaling town in Japan, Shimonoseki, and appears very envious of Japan’s continued whaling activity, despite global condemnation of Japan. (Shimonoseki is the port city where, every year, the Japanese whaling fleet sails to Antarctica to kill whales with phony “scientific” permits.) Seoul, by contrast, has continued to resist the whaling urge, and is evolving, thanks to its progressive mayor, into a truly Dolphin and Whale Safe city.
For years, fishermen in Korea have “accidentally” captured minke whales in gill nets offshore, ostensibly there to catch fish. The government of Ulsan recently announced they were going to build a special rendering plant for minke whale meat, an obvious effort to get themselves closer to their goal of renewed coastal whaling. Since there really is a small market for whale meat in Korea, a likely target market for Ulsan would be Japan, which already imports whale meat from Iceland. So far, however, the main government in the Republic of Korea has resisted proposing renewed commercial whaling at the International Whaling Commission.
Also occasionally caught, again “accidentally”, are live dolphins, which have promptly wound up in aquariums and other dolphin abusement parks.
In a recent court ruling sought by activists (who clandestinely filmed captive dolphins in their small tanks) may result in the release of five dolphins caught in such manner and sold to the tourist attraction Pacific Land. The case is under appeal by the park owners, but the Korean Animal Welfare Association sponsored a forum in Seoul this past week on rehabilitation ideas for the dolphins.
They generously invited me to attend. There, I got the chance to meet Seoul Mayor Park Wan-soon, who announced that he would allow one of the dolphins in the Seoul Zoo to be freed. The dolphin, called “Jedol”, may someday be housed in a new seapen to be built in his original home range near Jeju Island. The mayor has allocated more than $700,000 to construct the seapen and conduct the program to rehabilitate and release the dolphin back into the wild. (As one can expect in these situations, there is a lot of opposition from the Korean and international dolphin captivity industry.)
I got the chance to visit Jedol and inspect the dolphins being held in a sub-standard indoor facility with the ironic name “Ocean Paradise” on the zoo grounds. The dolphins I saw there were not living. Living is doing things, but they had no life there – they were simply surviving. Besides Jedol, there were two from the infamous Cove in Taiji, Japan, and two more that have been in captivity for more than ten years. All five are males.
Should the release of Jedol be successful (and there is a long way to go before we can celebrate!), this would be a major step for dolphins in a part of the world we don’t often think about as being sensitive about animal protection. Clearly, Mayor Park is to be congratulated for his efforts. I presented him with a plaque from the Dolphin Project commemorating his campaign for the captive dolphins.
At a special press conference, I told the media that a dolphin show for “ecology education” is not an educational experience. It is simply amusement. And it’s so sad for me to see people amused by a dolphin show, because a dolphin show is really nothing more than a thin disguise for animal humiliation and animal abuse. It’s a spectacle of dominance – of humans dominating nature – and it’s a form of bad education.
The mayor is the hero in this story. If this rehab project is successful, it will send a powerful, positive message to the rest of the world about Seoul, Korea’s respect for nature.
My deepest thanks also to the wonderful work being done by the Korean Animal Welfare Association and their President He Kyung Jo. They rock!
Photos courtesy of Ryu Woo Jong and Korean Animal Welfare Association.