Walruses and dolphins harvested on Korean fishing boats

Accounts of walruses, seals and dolphins being hunted down for their livers and genitals by exploited fishermen toiling in freezing conditions have sparked calls for an urgent overhaul of the South Korean fishing industry.

The claims of widespread environmental plunder and human rights abuse are based on interviews with scores of fisherman from 40 Korean-flagged or Korean-owned vessels, conducted by non-governmental organisations over the past three years.

“An urgent, independent and systematic review of the current legal and enforcement system is essential,” said the authors of a report by the Environmental Justice Foundation, a UK group, and Seoul-based Advocates for Public Interest Law, reviewed by the Financial Times.

South Korea’s deepwater fishing fleet is one of the world’s largest with more than 200 vessels operating in waters from New Zealand to Argentina.

According to the testimonies from crew members, a fifth had fished in prohibited areas and nearly a third had witnessed or taken part in the intentional capture and killing of protected species such as dolphins and stingrays.

“They were ordered to do this by the captains or senior Korean crews. [One fisherman] alleged that he had seen approximately 200 seals and walruses caught and dumped at sea after their organs were extracted over the course of six months,” the report said. “The extracted organs were hidden in the machine room.”

The report added that illegal shark-finning also took place.

Researchers believed the organs were ultimately sold in markets, including the genitalia as an aphrodisiac.

Among the more than 50 people interviewed — most of whom were migrant workers from south-east Asia — almost all complained of their wages being withheld, more than half said they were forced to work more than 18 hours without a break, and a fifth said they had been forced to stay at sea for more than a year without calling at port.

Many also suffered verbal and physical abuse while their salaries were well below the minimum wage.

“[One fisherman] alleged that he was forced to stand on the deck in dangerous weather and [to work] in the freezer without proper gloves. His colleague reportedly lost fingers due to frostbite,” the report said.

The accounts emphasised the need for proper enforcement, the report said, despite efforts in recent years by South Korean officials to update fisheries legislation and adopt international standards.

Fishermen allege frequent human rights and environmental abuses

“Due to the global nature of Korea’s fleet, this will require cross-governmental and international co-operation,” the report said.

Korea’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries said it had “zero tolerance” for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Penalties for breaches had been “drastically” increased, a fund had been created to improve ship safety and new electronic monitoring systems had been deployed, it said.

Regarding the latest allegations, the ministry said it needed to “confirm the facts”.

“It is unreasonable to generalise the claims as the situation prevailing in the Korean deep-sea fishing vessels — just based on the interviews of a few sailors who haven’t reboarded the Korean vessels,” a spokesperson said.

Korean seafood companies sell their products into European, Japanese and US markets. The names of the vessels and the companies involved have not been published at this time to protect workers.

Walruses have been killed for their genitals and livers © Reuters

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the conditions on the boats amounted “to forced labour and slavery that should be of concern to every major European and North American retailer importing fish from South Korean fleets”.

He added that the coronavirus pandemic has served to further isolate fishing boats and their crews, “leaving them at the mercy of abusive treatment from captains and officers who are working these fishermen to the bone”.

“And the amount of work has increased because recruitment of new migrant workers has largely been stymied by Covid-19 related travel restrictions, making the remaining fishermen even more vulnerable to abuses on understaffed boats,” said Mr Robertson.