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(Yonhap Feature) Environmentalists call for ban on displaying cetaceans

2017/03/02 09:00

By Kang Yoon-seung

ULSAN, March 2 (Yonhap) -- When South Korea's southern industrial city of Ulsan announced the plan to import two dolphins from Japan for its aquarium, a local environmental group strongly protested the decision, claiming locking up animals for display purposes can be considered cruelty.

The city government nevertheless pushed ahead with the plan with a budget estimated at 200 million won (US$176,554). Despite the city's confidence that the dolphins are adjusting well to the new environment, one of them died earlier this month, only five days after they reached the country.

The female dolphin, aged between four and five, came here on Feb. 8, traveling 32 hours, 700 kilometers by sea and 300 kilometers by land.

She refused food in the afternoon of Feb. 13 and died that night after suffering from breathing problems.

A group of veterinarians from Kyungpook National University said the death was caused by internal bleeding of the lungs and bronchial tubes by infection. How the dolphin got infected, however, remains unknown, the team added.

Activists stage a protest against the trade of dolphins in this photo taken on Feb. 20, 2017 on the sea near the southern port city of Ulsan. (Yonhap) Activists stage a protest against the trade of dolphins in this photo taken on Feb. 20, 2017 on the sea near the southern port city of Ulsan. (Yonhap)

So far, six dolphins died at the Whale Life Experience Museum of Ulsan, the aquarium which opened in 2009 in the district of Jangsaengpo.

Despite a series of deaths at the aquarium, Ulsan could not give up purchasing dolphins, as the city's tourism industry depends heavily on exhibitions of cetaceans, which historically goes back to as far as the late 1800s.

Before South Korea officially banned whaling in 1986, around 900 whales were hunted in waters near Ulsan every year.

After rising awareness of animal cruelty banned fishermen from catching whales, the city sought to preserve its "tradition" by proclaiming Jangsaengpo as a "Special Whale Culture Zone," building aquariums.

Controversy over utilizing whales and dolphins for tourism, however, has continued over the past years, with the latest death sparking another round of debate.

"The death of the dolphin shows how we are ignorant of the environmental value of dolphins as well as animal welfare," a local activists' group said in a joint announcement.

"In order to cut costs, we relocated dolphins by sea instead of air. The truck, which traveled 80-90 kilometers per hour, resulted in the death," the statement said.

Two dolphins purchased by the Whale Life Experience Museum, located in the southern port city of Ulsan, swim in the aquarium in this photo taken on Feb. 9, 2017. One of them died on Feb. 13. (Yonhap) Two dolphins purchased by the Whale Life Experience Museum, located in the southern port city of Ulsan, swim in the aquarium in this photo taken on Feb. 9, 2017. One of them died on Feb. 13. (Yonhap)

The Green Party Korea also said the aquarium used a normal truck which has no way to block noise, which could give them stress.

"Just to cut costs on transportation, the dolphins had to suffer stress and noise throughout their shipment," Lee Sang-hee, an official from the environmentalists' party, said, claiming the city has violated the law.

South Korea's animal rights law stipulates that animals should be provided with protection from drastic changes in environment.

Lee said whales are brutally hunted by Japan's whaling town of Taiji, from which Ulsan purchased the two dolphins.

Activists say even if they are caught in a humane manner, it is impossible to accommodate dolphins at aquariums peacefully, as the act of locking them up itself can be considered abuse.

"The fact that whales have been dying there proves it," Lee said.

Experts said dolphins especially boast higher intelligence than other animals and must stay in groups, claiming there are limits for aquariums to provide them with a nature-like environment.

While dolphins normally live 30-50 years in their natural habitat, statistics show they can only live around 20 years in a captive environment. So far, six dolphins have been born in South Korean aquariums, but only one of them managed to live more than a year.

Accordingly, protesters said Ulsan should be responsible for the death of the dolphin, claiming the accident must become an opportunity to change the country's policy on the trade of cetaceans.

"Ulsan's idea of tourism, which involves locking up animals for display, clashes with the global trend," Choi Ye-yong, an official from the Korea Federation for Environmental Movements, said.

Aquarium staff assist in the transport of one of two dolphins purchased by the Whale Life Experience Museum located in the southern port city of Ulsan in this photo taken on Feb. 9, 2017. (Yonhap) Aquarium staff assist in the transport of one of two dolphins purchased by the Whale Life Experience Museum located in the southern port city of Ulsan in this photo taken on Feb. 9, 2017. (Yonhap)

"We should preserve the habitat and have tourists go whale-watching in nature like other countries," Choi said. "There should be education on why we should save their habitats, why we should ban whaling, and how to preserve the ocean environment."

   Lee of the Green Korea Party echoed the view, claiming displaying whales at aquariums should not be considered a tradition.

"Even when South Korea used to hunt whales, there were not dolphin shows for amusement," Lee said. "Ulsan says the aquarium is named the Whale Life Experience Museum, but we cannot experience anything from locking them up."

   Lee said a true education can only be provided by preserving the marine environment and letting people understand the importance of nature.

"There are plenty of ways for Ulsan to maintain its tourism based on whales. The current method is not sustainable," she added.

In line with the criticism, Rep. Lee Jeong-mi of South Korea's Justice Party proposed a bill at the National Assembly to slap a complete ban on exhibiting cetaceans for entertainment and education purposes.

"Dolphins swim dozens of kilometers at sea. Locking them up in a 20-30 meter tank under the name of education is like imprisoning people in solitary confinement for entertainment," the lawmaker said.

The revision bill proposed by Lee would only allow South Korea to import cetaceans for research purposes and would forbid their use for education or entertainment under any circumstances.

"We need to induce those working in any cetacean-related industries to change their businesses," another activist said. "We cannot hold on to the name of tradition when the creatures are being endangered."

   Residents of Jangsaengpo, on the other hand, claim that whales and the region are "inseparable" and said the issue should be approached carefully.

"We cannot think of Jangsaengpo without whales," Lee Chun-sil, who heads the Ulsan-based Whale Cultural Foundation. "We can improve an environment at the aquarium by having vets keep track of the dolphins' health more carefully."

   Advocates said while Jangsaengpo was home to 10,000 people when the whaling industry thrived, the number has dropped to 1,300. Residents currently depend heavily on visitors, they added.

"We should improve the environment of aquariums and prevent further death. But we cannot undermine tourism because of one incident," the foundation head said.

Around 40 dolphins are estimated to be in captivity in eight aquariums throughout the country.

Another aquarium located in another southeastern port city of Geoje reported that six of the 20 dolphins it purchased have died since its opening in 2014.

The Whale Life Experience Museum of Ulsan and the Ulsan government declined to respond to questions about the case.

A joint investigation team of governmental officials and civic activists visits the Whale Life Experience Museum located in the southern port city of Ulsan in this photo taken on Feb. 22, 2017, after the death of a dolphin on Feb. 13. (Yonhap) A joint investigation team of governmental officials and civic activists visits the Whale Life Experience Museum located in the southern port city of Ulsan in this photo taken on Feb. 22, 2017, after the death of a dolphin on Feb. 13. (Yonhap)

colin@yna.co.kr

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