South Korean activists want captive dolphins freed from aquariums

Dozens of animal rights activists, based near Busan, the biggest port city in South Korea, protested against captive dolphins in front of an aquarium in Geoje, South Gyeongsang Province on May 31, the Day of Sea.  This day also happened to be a day before the local election in South Korea and the activists were urging candidates to free the dolphins.

Animal activist groups have been petitioning local governments for a number of years to free captive dolphins, including the ones held at state-owned aquarium, the Whale Life Experience Centre in Ulsan, a port city near Busan.

As of today, there are 22 dolphins kept at aquariums throughout the country and four of them are at the Whale Life Experience Centre, according to the Ulsan Federation for Environmental Movement (UFEM), a non-governmental organization for animal rights and protection of the environment.

However, now, activist groups have little hopes of freeing the dolphins as the newly elected politicians showed little interest in the issue.  For example, the new administration of Ulsan City Office does not show support in freeing the dolphins.

“The former administration was more supportive of the idea,” Lee Jong-beom, secretary-general of the UFEM, said. “It considered the idea to designate an area of Ulju county in Ulsan as a training center for the captive dolphins before their release. This dolphin rehabilitation center could also be promoted as a tourist destination.”

Activists had high hopes for this idea.  Unfortunately, the newly elected administration did not show interest in following through with this idea.

Animal rights activists want to free dolphins from aquariums.

Abnormal living environment

Lee said aquariums are not a natural habitat for dolphins to live. Captive dolphins cannot swim long distances as they would in the wild or dive deep down. They also are forced to be with unfamiliar species, also captives in the aquariums.

“No matter how well-established those aquariums are, it is still much smaller than the actual ocean,” Lee told Maritime Fairtrade. “The dolphins deserve to be free from those tanks to live healthy, happy lives.”

For the past 10 years, 37 captive dolphins died at state-owned and commercial aquariums in South Korea. “The numbers included eight dolphins that died at Whale Life Experience. Us activists sometimes say that the center should be called ‘Whale Death Experience Centre’, not ‘Life’,” Lee said.

Dolphins’ welfare must be protected

Many foreign government and corporate aquariums have released their dolphins upon the requests of animal rights groups, and Lee said South Korea should follow suit.

“As humans have human rights, so do dolphins have animal rights,” he said. “Dolphins should be sent back to where they originally came from, and that’s the global trend.”

Releasing dolphins is expensive, however — not only because the aquariums may lose their source of income, but also because they will have to train the dolphins to adjust back to wildlife.

“Once captured and raised in captivity, it won’t be easy to release the dolphins back to the ocean as they will have to compete with wild dolphins for food, and there is also a chance of being captured again,” Lee said.

Lee added that state-owned aquariums like the one in Ulsan should take the initiative in training and releasing the dolphins, and the government should set the example for commercial aquariums to follow. Also, unlike for commercial aquariums, dolphins are not a big source of income for local governments.

Photo credit: iStock/ slowmotiongli

Sunny Um

Sunny Um

Sunny, our South Korea correspondent working out of Seoul, is a journalist with a passion for community journalism and an interest in economics and politics.

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