“Worse than IMF and COVID”: Koreans with livelihoods tied to sea bemoan Fukushima dumping

Posted on : 2023-08-25 16:50 KST Modified on : 2023-08-25 16:50 KST
Even before the dumping began, Korean fishmongers were feeling the effects of concern about the contaminated water on their business
Customers at Noryangjin Fish Market in Seoul’s Dongjak District select seafood from sellers on Aug. 24. (Baek So-ah/The Hankyoreh)
Customers at Noryangjin Fish Market in Seoul’s Dongjak District select seafood from sellers on Aug. 24. (Baek So-ah/The Hankyoreh)

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, the hope that all of this would end one day kept us going. When it comes to the discharge of contaminated water from Japan, they say that the effects will have an impact for generations to come, so what are we to do? All the merchants here feel dejected.”

61-year-old Kim Bun-do, the chairperson of the merchants’ association at a plaza in Mokpo housing a little over two dozen restaurants specializing in raw fish, expressed the plight of Koreans whose lives are tied to the sea at 1 pm on Thursday, the hour Japan began flushing contaminated water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the ocean.

The area known as Bukhang around a smaller northern port in Mokpo, South Jeolla Province, where the plaza is located is the province’s best-known seafood district, with stalls and raw fish restaurants heavily concentrated in the region.

However, no customers were to be seen on Thursday, and only a few vendors, organizing their shops, were in the building.

South Jeolla Province accounts for more than 60% of South Korea’s fishery production, including aquaculture and offshore fishing.

“While most of the vendors look composed, inwardly, all of them are thinking about making industry changes or quitting entirely,” Kim said. “The number of customers we get will decrease immediately, but the government has not come up with any measures to support small businesses.”

A merchant who preferred to remain anonymous, commented, “Why did the discharge have to happen now, when households are buying dried fish in preparation for Chuseok?”

Go Yeong-tae, the 61-year-old chairperson of the merchants association at Bukhang Seafood Town, shared similar sentiments. “The government claims that this will not impact anyone, but has yet to come up with any reliable survey results. Both the ruling and opposition parties are using the situation for political purposes, and, in the end, the merchants are the only ones suffering,” he said.

Seafood traders in the Seoul metropolitan area, which consumes most of the country’s seafood, are also on edge.

“We were doing more business than this even during the IMF crisis,” said a 54-year-old surnamed Yoo, a vendor at Noryangjin Fish Market in Seoul’s Dongjak District, who has been in the fishing industry for 30 years.

“The recent economic recession, coupled with the controversy over contaminated water, has led to a 40% drop in sales compared to 2022,” they said.

Another merchant, a 50-year-old surnamed Yoo who has spent 29 years in the industry, shared, “Customers are increasingly asking for local products or refusing to buy items because they see that the items are from Japan. Merchants are waiting for the fuss over the discharge to die down.”

A gloomy atmosphere also loomed over the fish market in Soraepogu, Incheon, which is usually bustling with customers.

“Customers who come here have been regularly asking me if the fish is safe [in relation to Fukushima contaminated water],” shared Choi Jeong-sun, a 60-year-old vendor. “We tell them it’s OK because the water hasn’t been discharged yet, but still no one came. Now that the discharge has begun, I think we’ll be seeing even fewer customers.”

The worries of fishers and haenyeo, Korea’s women divers, whose livelihoods are based in the sea, are deepening.

“Even though it’s the peak season for squid fishing right now, since the waters around Jeju are already devastated, we haven’t caught even half of what we caught in 2022,” said Yang Young-bae, 56, a fisher who spoke to the Hankyoreh at the Dodu fishing village in Jeju City.

“Considering these circumstances, once the polluted water reaches us, the Jeju sea is as good as dead.”

Seo Bok-nyeo, an 82-year-old female diver, said, “When I meet haenyeo, all we talk about is the contaminated water. I worry, but there’s nothing we can do when even the government couldn’t stop this. That doesn’t make me any less worried, though.”

Kim Yeong-cheol, the executive director of the National Federation of Fishers Associations, said, “The government has come up with a plan to lend money at low interest rates to private distributors in order to induce the purchase of seafood at the level of 130,000 tons in addition to its own stockpile of 76,000 tons, but this is far too low if you look at the total production.”

“Even if Japan has started discharging the contaminated water, there is still time for it to reach our seas, so our government should try to stop it as soon as possible, such as filing a lawsuit at the International Court of Justice,” he demanded.

By Kim Yong-hee, Gwangju correspondent; Kwak Jin-san, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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