South Korea is proposing to hunt whales under regulations permitting scientific research whaling, echoing the programmes of its neighbour, Japan.
Hunting would take place near the Korean coast on minke whales. How many would be caught is unclear.
The South Korean delegation to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) said the research was needed “for the proper assessment of whale stocks”.
Many governments at the IWC meeting condemned the Korean announcement.
There are several different stocks, or groups, of minke whales in the region, and one of the them, the so-called J-stock, is severely depleted.
Given that fact, “we believe that scientific whaling on this stock borders on the reckless,” New Zealand’s delegation head, Gerard van Bohemen said.
But Joon-Suk Kang, the head of the South Korean delegation, said the programme was necessary to answer questions about minke whale stocks that non-lethal research had been unable to solve.
He said the proposal was not finalised, and that whaling would not begin until plans had been discussed by an international group of expert scientists convened by the IWC.
The Koreans’ eventual stated aim is to prepare the ground for a resumption of “coastal whaling” – a rather vague concept that Japan is also pursuing, and that would see whale hunting return as a normal activity.
‘Breach of faith’
The region around the port of Ulsan, in the south-east of South Korea, has a whale-eating tradition that appears to date back thousands of years, judging by prehistoric cave art.
Fishermen in the region already catch whales in fishing nets. Officially, this happens accidentally, but local environment groups say the minkes are deliberately caught, and that the meat is easily bought in markets and restaurants.
Dr Kang said that fishermen in the area are now complaining that a growing whale population is eating more and more fish.
Any government is entitled under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) to embark unilaterally on a scientific hunting programme, although Japan is the only one that currently does so.
Anti-whaling governments and conservation groups argue that Japan’s programmes in the North Pacific and Antarctic are an abuse of process, as the regulation was originally designed to allow for the taking of a few whales here and there, and not hundreds per year.
They argue that the real purpose is to provide a supply of whale meat, albeit to a dwindling customer base.
“Scientific whaling is an obsolete and sad consequence of a document drafted 60 years ago,” said Monaco’s IWC commissioner, Frederic Briand.
“There’s no reason to do it, given the enormous body of scientific literature [on cetaceans] obtained via non-lethal means.”
South Korea was one of the first countries to take the scientific whaling route after the global moratorium on commercial hunting came into place in 1986, but the programme was in operation for just a single season.
Then, the country came under intense diplomatic pressure to stop, and Dr Kang admitted to BBC News that his government is now likely to feel a similarly huge pressure not to start.
However, Korea, Japan, Iceland and Norway all complain regularly that anti-whaling governments have no intention of ever agreeing to a resumption of hunting anywhere, however healthy the stocks, and that this amounts to a breach of promises made when the moratorium came into existence.
Earlier, Japan lodged a proposal to allow coastal whaling by four villages around the coast – among them Ayukawa, which was devastated by the 2011 tsunami.
It has tabled similar bids for many years, and they have always been defeated by anti-whaling governments, who view the move as a way of breaking the whaling moratorium.