The Greying Problem of South Korean Fishing Industry

A self-inflicted wound.

While many South Korean fishing villages persist in maintaining their old-fashioned, authoritarian and hierarchical customs to newcomers, this self-inflicted wound is hastening the greying of the fishermen with not enough fresh blood to take over.  

Moving to a fishing village as a seafarer or a fisherman is not so easy in South Korea.  Learning the difficult work skills and irregular earnings are high entry barriers, but what is particularly challenging for newcomers is getting accustomed to the old-fashioned hierarchy and hostile attitude against them in many fishing villages.

A 55-year-old woman surnamed Yoon said she left a fishing village after living there for four months, due to its authoritarian customs.

“I moved from Incheon to Ocheon-myeon, South Chungcheong Province in 2016,” she said. “To join the village’s fraternity (which is the only way to make earnings as an individual fisherman) was extremely difficult with high barriers. I had to move out of the village after four months because I had constant conflicts with the villagers and did not make much money (from fishing).”

Another person also shared the suffering of the life of a new fisherman.  “An acquaintance of mine moved into a fishing village in Gyeonggi Province.  But he could not join the fishing village fraternity unless he paid several million won, even for any recreational fishing. … The acquaintance also did not want to submit to the village’s customs, which made the villagers turn against him.”  He had moved out of the village after a year.

Photo credit: Park Su-young

High entry barriers 

To fish at a certain beach or parts of the ocean, newcomers must join the corresponding fishing village fraternity, whichholds the communal fishing right to the designated fishing ground. Their rights are also guaranteed by the Fisheries Act of 1962 in South Korea.

However, many fraternities ask new members to satisfy certain conditions before they can join, such as a minimum period of residence or entrance payment. 

According to a 2019 report of the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperatives, 73 percent of the 2,309 fishing village fraternities have requirements for their membership. 

About 166 fraternities require newcomers to pay anything from 10 million won (US$8,880) to 100 million won ($88,000). Also, 741 fraternities require new members to have lived in the villages for at least two to 10 years. 

This shows that it takes a significant amount of money and time to become a member of the fishing business in many villages in South Korea.

Also, many fishing villages have very hierarchal and complicated administration system to settle issues.  For example, in Iwon-myeon, Taean, a fishing village in South Chungcheong Province, there are three decision makers: the village chief, head of the senior welfare center and head of the women’s society. 

When there is an issue, it is first reviewed by the head of the senior welfare center, follow by the head of the women’s society and finally the village chief.

“At the end of the day, the village chief is the king – he makes all the decisions,” a local official, who wished to remain anonymous, told Maritime Fairtrade. “People here say that it takes at least 10 years to be welcomed as a villager, but it is not easy to get accustomed (to the system).”

Photo credit: Park Su-young

What villagers think

Lee Choon-ja, a fisherman from Iwon-myeon, told Maritime Fairtrade that she thinks that newcomers often disrupt the village’s traditions.

“Outsiders who move into the village have different thinking or perspectives of lives,” Lee said. “If more outsiders enter our village, their way of living will alter what we have been doing traditionally.” 

Another fisherman, Park Myug-shin, and other six others from the same village added that they feel awkward around newcomers.

“We would have no idea what they think behind us,” they said. “So, we do feel a little uncomfortable about the newcomers at first. But, if they settle down as villagers after several years, then we don’t have many conflicts.”

Greying of the population

One of the most representative drawbacks of the hierarchal culture is the rapidly aging population and not enough injection of new blood to regenerate the industry.

The overall population in South Koran fishing villages was about 113,000 in 2020, which was a 51.5 percent point drop since 2005, according to the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries. Also, approximately 40 percent of the fishing population is 65 or older.

During a policy briefing at the Blue House, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun announced that the government will introduce a direct payment system for marine products, which may increase the salary level of fishing villages and can lure more young people.

However, the government did not announce any plans to address and resolve the root cause of the authoritarian and hierarchy customs which are turning away young people from embarking on a career in the fishing villages.  It looks like the problem of not having enough young blood in the industry will linger on for some time to come.

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