The Manchurian trout Brachymystax lenok that live in South Korea’s freshwater streams are so distinctive that the species is listed in The Act of Cultural Assets in Korea as National Monument No.73. They ought to be an angler’s dream, growing up to 27 inches at maturity, and they would be, if any of them lived long enough.
Unfortunately, most Manchurian trout that ply South Korea’s streams never live long enough to live up to their majestic status, nor do any other fish. They fall prey to poachers’ nets or habitat loss long before they reach sexual maturity in their seventh or eighth year of life. There are no fishing licenses or any other regulations covering South Korea’s freshwater fish, or game wardens to protect them.
Some restaurants serving Maeuntang, a spicy soup made with any variety of freshwater fish, dispatch weekly crews to desolate mountain valleys armed with nets and iron crowbars, to displace large stones from riverbeds to capture every swimming minnow, trout and snail clinging to life in their fragile alpine ecosystem. There are no rangers on patrol to stop this rape of nature. The actions of the poachers are unchecked and frequently occur in almost every mountain valley in the nation.
The only regulations available to the public are buried several pages deep at the National Legal Information Center’s website. The few regulations that restrict angling are short moratoriums on a few specific species including the Manchurian trout. The regulations define fishing as prohibited inside national park boundaries and state that capturing these species is prohibited during spawning periods. The rest of the year, it’s open season to slaughter without consequence.
Nor is Brachymystax lenok alone. As a result, numerous species of mammals, birds, and fish have gone extinct from S. Korea in the last 50 years, and several more are listed as threatened or endangered by the IUCE Species Programme. A particularly interesting Korean language article about restocking an extinct char made headlines weeks earlier.
The story explains the disappearance and short-lived return of the white spotted char. The anadromous char has not been spotted since the early 1970s in South. Korea. For decades, researchers surveying streams in northeastern Gangwon Province have been unable to detect the fish’s existence. Water misappropriation, stream degradation and poaching are factors blamed in the char’s disappearance. In an effort to restore the white-spotted char to streams along South Korea’s northeastern coast, Ichthyologists in Hwacheon County, Gangwon Province imported 100,000 eggs from a Japanese hatchery last December to a trout hatchery in Gumanri, Hwacheon County for an artificial production program.
Although the Gumanri hatchery is usually reserved for rearing cherry trout, technicians aimed to incubate the fertilized eggs before transferring juvenile char into feeding ponds. After spending several months in the feeding ponds at Gumanri, young char were scheduled not to be released back into their native creeks, but instead displayed as a feature attraction at the annual Hwacheon mountain trout festival that purportedly attracts over 1 million visitors to the three week event, bringing a tremendous amount of tourist revenue to the sleepy town situated 30 minutes from the DMZ.
Unfortunately, the hopes of the festival planners were dashed. Until late March, conservation groups and anglers were optimistic about the hatchery’s success. Last week, a spokesperson from Hwacheon City Hall announced “the hatchery had failed to produce a significant number of juvenile char necessary for moving the program forward.”
Hwacheon County officials did not indicate if the hatchery would make a second attempt at artificial reproduction and emphasized that earlier attempts had been “solely for experimental purposes.” One might ask, what was the main purpose: To restore an endemic species or to attract tourist dollars at a wildly popular fishing festival?
Spring has nearly arrived. Frozen rivers have regained their flow. The days are growing longer. I’m anxious to return to my favorite freestone creeks to see what has changed over the winter. I’ve tied hundreds of flies, translated piles of Korean language maps, and carefully packed my minivan for a weekend of fishing and camping.
I exit the motorway and pull off to have a sandwich. It’s quiet here. The spring air is warm and with it, comes the promise of a new season of fishing. An hour later, I arrive at a creek hidden from the road. The snow hasn’t melted here, but a few Korean Rhododendron bushes are blooming as butterflies cruise over the tumbling creek.
I spend the day hiking deep into the canyon, admiring the luxuries of my natural world, free of roads, bridges, and construction projects. I cast my line and watch my deer-hair caddis alight on the current. Several seconds later, a cherry trout rises to devour my fly. I carefully remove the fly from the fish in my net and revive him in the current before release. I revel in the brilliant golds, reds, and oranges as the fish’s body flashes away to deeper water.
Nearing sunset, I trudge back to the minivan. When I arrive, I witness a disgusting and obscene act. Below in the creek, a group of fish poachers electroshock a small pool with a 12 volt automotive battery. A few silvery minnows flop to the surface. A man shouts as the others grab the meager harvest with long-handled nets.
Fishing licenses are desperately needed in Korea. The population of South Korea exceeds that of Canada. Its landmass is the rough equivalent of Indiana’s. Korea’s fisheries are a limited resource that cannot support the current angling pressure. Regulating public access to Korea’s rivers and lakes could generate much needed revenue to low-income rural areas and create jobs within those communities.
However, South Korea’s lack of a proper licensing system is only a drop in the bucket. James Card, an American journalist who spent over a decade in Korea wrote “The natural landscape of South Korea has been largely re-engineered, with nearly every river damned or forced into concrete channels.”
Card’s criticism of the country’s environmental stance is not unwarranted. Destructive factors include construction sites, prone to severe erosion in the monsoon season. Storm sewer discharge-surface pollutants flow directly into rivers. Farmers re-route creeks into irrigation ditches, leaving barren beds of exposed river rocks. The resulting low-water conditions raise stream temperatures and reduce habitat for fish and several species of migratory birds that stop over along the Australasian Flyway.
Farms also discharge a significant amount of nitrogen-rich fertilizers into Korea’s river systems. The combination of warm, slow-flowing, nitrogen-enriched rivers leads to massive algae blooms causing eutrophic dead zones, “the takeover of nutrient-rich surface water by phytoplankton or other plants” as explained by Tulane University’s Elizabeth Carlisle, who also wrote “If nutrient pollution is not greatly reduced, fish and shellfish may someday be permanently replaced by anaerobic bacteria.”
South Korea celebrates Children’s Day on May 5. What will contemporary Koreans give future generations? Progressive, environmentally-focused policies that that outline a transparent framework of legislation to safeguard Korea’s wildlife and watersheds, or will its waterways and native species continue to be used viewed as prime targets for exploitation?