SEOUL, South Korea, July 17, 2012 (ENS) – South Korea has abandoned its recently announced plan to hunt whales for scientific research, according to senior government officials.

First mentioned at the International Whaling Commission annual meeting earlier this month, the Korean plan raised objections from many whale conservationist countries such as New Zealand and Australia.

The first indication of Korea’s change in policy came Thursday during a meeting between Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan and Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr at the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

minke whale

Minke whale (Photo by Wayne Hoggard courtesy NOAA)

Minister Kim told Senator Carr that Korea would take the advice of the International Whaling Commission on the subject, indicating that plans for “scientific whaling” in immediate waters surrounding the Korean peninsula would not proceed.

Senator Carr praised Korea’s leadership in making this decision. “Korea has committed itself to green growth, and is capable of becoming a global green superpower,” Carr said. “Its green credentials would not be compromised.”

Australia’s Ambassador in Seoul, Sam Gerovich, had conveyed Australia’s strong opposition to a resumption of whaling in talks with the Office of President Lee Myung-bak on July 6.

Today, South Korea’s Yonhap News Service quoted a senior official who spoke on condition of anonymity as saying, “Discussions between government ministries have been concluded in a way that effectively scraps the plan to allow whaling in coastal waters.”

“Even if it is for scientific research, we have to take into consideration that this has emerged as a sensitive issue at home and abroad,” the official said.

Officials from the president’s office, the prime minister’s office and the agriculture and fisheries ministry held a recent meeting to discuss the issue, sources told Yonhap.

President Lee reproached Agriculture Minister Suh Kyu-yong as international criticism grew, they said.

The IWC has had a moratorium on commercial whaling in place since 1986 in an attempt to allow whales to recover after centuries of whaling drove many species close to extinction.

At present, only Japan carries out special permit lethal “research” whaling. This is permitted under a clause in the IWC Convention, although many IWC member governments have expressed opposition to the practice.

At this month’s IWC meeting, head of the South Korean delegation, Dr. Joon-Suk Kang, told the delegates the reason for his country’s “research” whaling plan was to “correctly identify the feeding habits” of about 35 species of whales in Korean waters and thus “the impact of the whale population on the fisheries resources.”

In the 1970s and 1980s up to the moratorium, said Dr. Kang, about 1,000 minke whales were captured annually around the Korean peninsula. “However, the long coastal whaling tradition for livelihood and nutritional purposes was suspended in 1986 in compliance with the IWC decision,” he said.

Fishermen in Ulsan, South Korea, who traditionally have been whalers, have been calling for limited whaling, said Dr. Kang.

“This is because they are experiencing disturbances in their fishing activities due to frequent occurrences of cetaceans in their fishing grounds and an increasing number of minke whales are eating away large amount of fish stocks which should be consumed by human being,” he said.

The whales in South Korean waters are believed to be eating some 146,000 tons of fish annually, about 12 percent of the country’s annual fisheries production, according to government estimates.

But the minke whales targeted for Korean research whaling are baleen whales that eat only small plankton, krill, and very small fish.

Korean fishermen have been harvesting whales entangled in their fishing nets as “by-catch” while they were fishing for other species.

The number of whales harvested as by-catch exceeds the number of whales accidentally caught in fishing nets anywhere in the rest of the world, according to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a whale defense organization that battles the Japanese whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary each year.

South Koreans who want to eat whale meat will still be able to do so even though the “research” whaling plan has been abandoned. The Lee Government has recently adopted a new ministerial Directive on the Conservation and Management of Whale Resources to establish a transparent system of distribution for stranded or by-caught whale meats.

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