January 12th, 2017. ULSAN – Korean waters have become dangerous habitat for finless porpoises, sometimes referred to in Korea as “smiling whales” for their grinning faces.
According to the Ulsan Coast Guard, a total of 9,710 whales died in the five-year period from 2011 to 2015 from either illegal poaching or unintended catch in fishing nets.
Among the victims, finless porpoises accounted for 67.7 percent, or 6,573. Only 23 were killed from illegal poaching and the rest were from accidentally being caught in fishing nets. The number of deaths was followed by dolphins (1,788 deaths), minke whale (410), and other whale types (940).
The population of finless porpoises in Korean waters has dropped drastically over the past decade or so. While waters around the Korean peninsula were home to 36,000 porpoises in 2004, their numbers plummeted to 13,000 in 2011, officials said, adding that over 1,000 of the mammals have been killed each year since 2012.
Coast Guard data shows that 1,581 finless porpoises were killed in 2012, 1,491 in 2013, 1,158 in 2014, and 1,628 in 2015. The coast guard estimated roughly 1,260 were killed in 2016.
Among the biggest threats to these animals are stow nets, fishing nets in the form of large sacks where the fish get pushed in by tidal currents. But when a finless porpoise gets swept into one of the nets, it often fails to escape and eventually suffocates to death, unable to swim to the surface to breathe.
The Korean government introduced last year measures to protect the finless porpoise, designating it as a marine animal banned for capture and distribution for commercial or leisure activity purposes. It is also developing fishing equipment that could allow the whales to escape in cases of incidental catch.
“Unlike dolphins that are very curious, finless porpoises are shy and tend to avoid approaching vessels. But because they’re more active near the shore than are dolphins, they’re the ones most affected by fishing activities,” said researcher Park Gyeom-jun from the National Institute of Fisheries Science.
“Along with thorough research of their habitat and migratory routes, cooperation from the fishing industry is also essential.”