South Korea needs to reconsider fisheries conservation effort

Critics say the existing policies are not far-sighted and comprehensive enough.

Although South Korea is a big consumer of seafood, critics say the government is not taking enough effort to ensure a sustainable supply from the fisheries.  By Sunny Um, South Korea correspondent, Maritime Fairtrade

Seafood is an important food source for South Koreans. Many staples are made with seafood, such as squid and cod, which makes the country one of the biggest consumers of seafood in the world. 

According to the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries in South Korea, the country topped the 2017 global rankings for seafood consumption, recording 58.4 kilograms per capita. Other neighboring countries like Japan and China followed behind with 50.2 kilograms and 39.5 kilograms respectively.

However, environmental advocates say that South Korea does not show enough effort to rejuvenate the diminishing marine species compared to its massive annual consumption.  Many marine biologists say that at least 30 percent of oceans should be designated as protected areas by 2030 to let ocean creatures have enough time to reproduce and repopulate.

But South Korea has only designated 2.46 percent of coastal and marine areas as protected, which does not even meet the Aichi Target of 10 percent that the country committed to in 2010.

While the government says that establishing marine protected areas may affect the livelihood of the fishing industry, critics charge that the policies are not comprehensive and holistic enough to take care of all stakeholders. 

Government reports result in protecting fisheries 

In 2019, the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries introduced a five-year plan known as the “Roadmap to Designate and Manage the Ecological Axis,” to restore the marine ecosystem by monitoring sea creatures’ migratory routes and using the data to formulate suitable policies to secure a healthy food supply from the ocean. 

This Plan resulted in the revision of the Conservation and Management of Marine Ecosystems Act to establish the legal basis to define and manage the ecological axis, a guideline for use in the industry, and the formation of a consultative group consisting of central and local officials and representatives from the civil society.  The authority will review the results at the end of the five-year duration.

Government officials also emphasized that there is a constant effort to increase the number of marine protected areas since the legislation of the Aichi Target.

“The number of marine protected areas has been increasing,” said Lee Jae-yeong, chief of the Marine Ecology Division at the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, during an online forum on the management of marine protected areas held on May 12 attended by Maritime Fairtrade. “But the amount of government’s budget (for the marine conservation) is limited, which makes it difficult for us to expand quickly the number of protected areas and to manage them effectively.”

In addition, the government says that the fishing industry will not appreciate more designated marine protected areas as this will mean less areas for fishermen to fish and hence less earnings.

“In conjunction with taking care of the ocean, we also need to take care of our fishermen.  We need to have a system to fairly compensate the fishermen for their (expected) loss of income in having less areas to fish,” Lee said during the online forum.

Civil society says government is not doing enough

Park Hyeon-seon, president of Sea Shepherd Korea, told Maritime Fairtrade that the current conservation plans provided by the government are “pathetic.”

“South Korea is one of the countries that oppose the idea of designating 30 percent of the marine areas as protected areas by 2030, also known as the 30 by 30 plan,” Park said. “South Korea does not agree to this international agenda which has already been endorsed by over 100 countries — this is troubling.”

Park says the government does not agree to the 30 by 30 plan because of political calculation.  As the fishing community is big and powerful, the government does not want to antagonize them for fear of losing votes and support.  As it is, this is short-sighted, for a good fisheries sustainability plan can be a win-win for all stakeholders.  

“The government wants to avoid clashing with the fishing industry, which often claims that the protected areas will threaten their livelihood,” she said. “Other countries also would have experienced the same problem (when they expanded the protected areas) but the South Korean government only takes the short-term deficits into account rather than having the political will to tackle the problem head-on now and reap the benefits later.”

Lee Yong-ki, an ocean conservation coordinator at the Korea Federation for Environmental Movements (KFEM), said that the lack of budget also partly explains South Korea’s sluggish effort at protecting the fisheries.

“The budget allocated for the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries is only three percent out of the total government budget,” said Lee, during a phone interview with Maritime Fairtrade.  “Specifically, the budget used for conservation is only one percent of the Ministry’s budget. The majority of the budget is used for the fishing and shipping industries.”

Park from Sea Shepherd Korea said the government’s top priority should be designating the existing marine protected areas as No-Take Zones, where fishing, mining, and other extractive activities are prohibited.

“South Korea has several marine protected areas, but all of them are not No-Take Zones,” Park said. “This means catching fishes at marine protected areas would not be considered illegal.”

Lee from KFEM asked for more interest from the public to urge the government to rejuvenate the fisheries.  Favorable sentiments from the voting public will play a part in convincing the government to act whole-heartedly.

“If the government does not control indiscriminate fishing and have effective plans to repopulate the fisheries, the destruction of the marine biological system will be inevitable,” Lee said. “Citizens should request the government for robust marine ecosystem protection plans.”

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