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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Fish out of water . . .

Dolphins in shallow water as court case drags on

By Tracie Barrett and Iris Hong

JEJU, South Korea, April 27 (Yonhap) -- Human rights and welfare have become political issues in Korea in the recent general elections and the run-up to December's presidential poll. Less discussed but gaining prominence is the issue of animal rights in the country, which only passed its first Animal Welfare Law in 1991. In the first such case in Korean history, a court this month ruled on the case of five illegally captured dolphins.

   The president and a director of Pacific Land, a tourist attraction near Jungmun Beach on the south coast of Jeju Island, were found guilty of buying 11 dolphins from local fishermen who had caught the animals illegally. The pair, known only by their surnames of Heo and Koh, were both sentenced to eight months in prison, fined 10 million won (US$8,760) each and ordered to release the surviving five dolphins, for which they paid an average of 15 million won apiece.

   A court ruled that the marine mammals be released back to nature, but the Pacific Land officials are appealing the verdict. The possibility of up to two years' delay before the Supreme Court rules on the case leaves the animals in a watery limbo until then.

A local animal rights group founded in July 2011, after the Korean Coast Guard uncovered the illegal catches and the issue became public, fears for the dolphin's safety in the interim. Hwang Hyun-jin of the group Hot Pink Dolphins cites the previous deaths of five of the original 11 dolphins, and questions the company's incentive to keep the remaining dolphins alive. "Rehabilitating them needs tremendous sums of money, whereas killing them is simple," she said.

   Her group is campaigning for the release of all dolphins being held in captivity in South Korea and urges Pacific Land to rehabilitate and release its captives. "Locking them up in a small tank, taking away their freedom and exploiting them is very unethical," she said.

   One of the 11 illegally caught dolphins, named Jedoli, was traded to Seoul Grand Park, a major theme park in Korea's capital. Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon has ordered Jedoli be returned to the wild and the park has earmarked 872 million won for the animal's rehabilitation and release. Kang Hyoung-ook of Seoul Grand Park's media team said the park "was completely unaware" Jedoli had been illegally caught when it received it from Pacific Land in July 2009, in exchange for two sea lions. The park suspended its dolphin show in March, he said, and was seeking public opinion on whether it would restart.
This past weekend, however, Jedoli and four other dolphins at the park returned to public view for "eco shows" aimed at familiarization with the marine mammals. Animal rights groups immediately decried the move, accusing the park of running the same show as before only under a different name.

   Pacific Land's dolphins also continue to perform four to five times a day, however, turning tricks with their trainers in an indoor tank smaller than an Olympic-sized swimming pool. When not performing, a staff member said when asked, the dolphins live in a holding pool underground. For four of the dolphins that were caught in 2009 -- Bok-soon, Chun-sam, Tae-san and Hae-soon -- that amounts to years in captivity without even natural light. Pacific Land declined to be interviewed for the story.

   The Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry (FAFF) regulates the catching of whales and dolphins in South Korean waters under a document called the "Notification of Conservation and Maintenance of Cetacea Species." Lee Seh-oh, a cetacean official in the ministry's policy department, said FAFF can give approval to catch marine mammals "for educational performance and exhibition" after it evaluates the animals and the organization wanting to use them "very carefully."

   The ministry follows regulations set by the International Whaling Commission in such matters as species whose capture is internationally banned, Lee said. Other species, however, such as the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins held by Pacific Land, come under local jurisdiction. FAFF only has control of if and why the marine mammals can be harvested, and no say in how they will be cared for.

   Dolphin expert Dr. Lori Marino, a neuroscientist at Emory University in Georgia and the author of more than 80 publications on cetaceans, said she cannot imagine what life must be like for captured wild dolphins that spend their lives in such close confinement. "Their quality of life must be so poor and wretched," she said. "There is nothing about their environment that I can tell that is good for them in any way."

Marino said the natural range of wild dolphins varies but can be tens of kilometers a day. "Certainly it's not something that can be replicated in a captive setting." The stress of living in confinement produces a lot of abnormalities in cetaceans, she said, both physically and psychologically. Marino is an avowed critic of cetacean captivity and said marine mammals don't live nearly as long in captivity as in the wild.

   If the Supreme Court upholds the lower court's decision to free the Pacific Land dolphins, it is unclear who will foot the bill for their rehabilitation and release. Hot Pink Dolphins believes Pacific Land should pay all related expenses. Pacific Land has reportedly said the animals may not be able to adapt to the ocean again, but Marino disputes that claim. They will need to go through a series of training stages to become autonomous again, she said, but they have a high chance of survival.

   "There is no reason to think that bottlenose dolphins caught from the wild who are in captivity just a few years could not go back into the wild. It has been done many times. These are wild dolphins - they would remember how to survive in the wild."

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