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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."

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What lies beneath . . .

I'm not trying to become the voice of the animal rights movement in Korea and, while I see so many things wrong with how animals are treated here, I'd like to see people treated better first. Including the man who sleeps in the subway tunnel near my home and Miss Park, the senior citizen who picks up cigarette butts and overly inebriated U.S servicemen to survive.

But . . .

I was asked to write a feature last week (online tomorrow) on a court case involving some dolphins and found myself incensed at how they were being treated. Then, yesterday, I edited a caption for a picture of a minke whale "accidentally"  found dead in a fisherman's net and auctioned off for more than $74,000. 

Having just completed the dolphin story (dolphins and whales are both cetaceans and covered by the same legal document here), this seemed odd so I did a little research. I found that selling "bycatch" (accidentally caught in nets) whale meat is completely legal in Korea and the amount of such whale meat sold may equal that which Japan catches in its "research" hunts.

I'm not blaming the fishermen, who mainly make a subsistence income, as $70,000 plus is a lot of money for a mistake, but it seems there's something essentially wrong here. I'm also not inviting the moron who fronts Sea Shepherd to come here and sort it out (as an ocean sailor, I think he should be charged with criminal negligence for his lack of concern for his crew's safety or training).

For the record, I also don't mind Koreans eating dogmeat, when it's bred for that purpose and killed humanely (I don't eat it myself because the killing is usually done by beating it to death in the misguided belief that the subsequent increase in adrenaline tenderizes the meat). I live on a farm at home (organic) and we eat our animals, but we give them a good life beforehand and try to minimize any suffering. (Again for the record, vegans and vegos, I have no issue with anyone needing my flesh for sustenance when I die either - that was a conversation had while becalmed in the Indian Ocean many years ago.)

But I do wonder if the Western world is overly focused on the wrong issue here. (Bait and switch, anyone?) Again, writing as an ocean sailor who knows the freedom of the seas, should we not be more concerned with marine mammals with brains larger than ours?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Watch this space . . .

Coming soon (once my employer has it on the wire first) - the sad saga of The Pacific Land Five . . .

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Tracie in Training . . .

I moved apartment last week and have come to suspect the cat that owns one of my new room-mates may have been using my Internet to read The Oatmeal. Our relationship didn't start well. When I went to view the room, Luna (her pet's name for her, tho I suspect her name for herself is much more impressive) had thrown up on the bed. The bed was moved out, I moved myself and my own bed in and I've been trying to explain politely to Luna (the mighty Empress of all) that I don't dislike her, I'm simply allergic.

Felines are abnormally attracted to anyone allergic to them.

We're developing this odd stalker relationship where she comes running from her pet's room most times she hears my bedroom door open, and I explain yet again she can't come in. Sometimes she's smarter than that, and lays low when I get up late at night then slips under my bed, and I only realize she's sneaked in when she appears by my head as I'm falling asleep.

She allows me, before I leave for work each morning, to pet her in the living room. I can't help but feel I disappoint her, though.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Black Money

A fact of life well-known to any man that's ever married a Korean woman is that the finances are the wife's responsibility and one she takes very seriously. It is the norm for the entire paycheck to be turned over to the wife, from which she gives her husband a small allowance. (Even Nicholas Cage, when visiting with the VFW here some years back, commented about his then-new wife that Korean women are very different about money.)

So how's a man to fund all-night soju sessions with his colleagues, not to mention visits to room salons (where the female "hostesses" offer a range of services starting at singing with their male guests and going through to "happy endings") or, for the wealthier gents, the upkeep of one's girlfriend (a necessary status symbol for many)?

The solution? Black money.

Every large Korean company I have worked for here, remembering that traditionally men were the sole business class, has a version of black money, outside of the regular salary. At my first newspaper here, I was told to open an account with the company's credit union, despite my salary going directly to my own bank account. I did so and was surprised to find it already had a good sum deposited - my first encounter with black money. From then on, any extra compensation, including overtime, yearly bonuses and recompense for business expenses went into my "secret" account.

Here in my current job, I get paid extra for working weekends or overtime, in addition to extra payments for editing a monthly publication on North Korea (which to me is akin to being paid to study a favorite subject, although it can be difficult to edit). So every few weeks, the office girl comes around distributing envelopes stuffed with man (10,000) won bills (KRW10,000 is usually close to US$10). I do love those yellow envelopes and probably should never have told the boyfriend they existed.

I have no idea if any of this is taxed as my taxation is all Korean to me, I just smile, thank her and for the publication money sign a receipt. It almost makes me feel as I did in my long-ago and much-loved career as a waitress when I'd go home with extra money each day from tips. I love my job because of the talented people I am privileged to work with and the appreciation I receive for my skills, but it certainly doesn't make me love it any less by tossing me cash-filled envelopes on a regular basis.

Dinner and drinks, anyone?

For the record, the wives are aware of the existence of these accounts, just as many are aware of the existence of room salons and girlfriends, but it's a socially agreed upon construct in Korea that so long as something is not acknowledged or discussed, it does not exist. Opseyo.