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Preserving Jeju Island's haenyeo culture that is impacted by changing marine environment Updated: 2022-08-15 08:39:55 KST

In our extended feature segment this week we shed light on efforts to maintain a Korean tradition that is also on the list of UNESCO's cultural heritage.
We're talking about female divers better known as haenyeo in the southern island of Jeju and their livelihoods despite the challenges posed by the TOILS of their trade.
Arirang's Lee Shi-hoo has a firsthand account.

In the seas surrounding South Korea's southernmost island, there are women who follow the rules of nature to make a living.
They are known as the haenyeo .or literally 'sea women' of Jeju Island who harvest seafood from underwater while holding their breath.
The haenyeo can hold their breath for about two minutes and plunge as deep as 30 meters each dive.
The centuries-old tradition was added to UNESCO's List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2016.

"It received recognition for its sustainability-- for preserving the harvesting grounds-- and for the community that mutually helps each other."

Without the assistance of oxygen tanks, haenyeo can only collect as many sea creatures as their breath or "soom" allows.
They also limit the size of their catch like abalone, conch, and sea urchins to preserve the ecosystem.

However, the profession is failing to attract young people to replenish its ranks.

The number of haenyeo on Jeju has shrunk from 14-thousand in the 1970s to a little over 34-hundred in 2021.
The average diver is now older than 70.

"Time is passing and we are aging. These days, there are about 100 haenyeo who retire due to health reasons every year."

Experts say there are many reasons for the decline including increased education and job opportunities for women.
But possibly the biggest reason is simply how tough the work is.

"More than anything, the work is tough. The solidarity among women doesn't change the fact that being in the water is strenuous work."

To preserve the dying tradition, Jeju City founded a school in 2008 to train young haenyeo divers.
At Hansupul Haenyeo School, students learn how to hold their breath for long periods and harvest sea food.
During the four-month course, they learn how to spot and handle sea creatures as well as make traditional haenyeo clothing.
Trainees also learn how to make tewak, the buoys that haenyeos use to collect their catch in.
The classes are taught by active haenyeo divers.

"Since haenyeo have so much know-how, there's a lot to learn. They also teach us in an engaging way so we can have fun learning."

I decided to take a dive with the students in one of their practice sessions.


"So I've changed into a diving suit that's worn by haenyeos when they're working outside in the ocean. It's very stretchy as you can see I can move my arms around and reach far down as well. It's also really warm so it can keep the body temperature while you're out in the ocean. I have tewak with me. This is what haenyeos use as buoys out in the ocean, you can collect seafood inside here and carry it out to the land after you're done working."

Haenyeo always move in a group for safety and so do the trainees.


26:09 ! .
"Let's stay here! There are too many jellyfish over there."

Each haenyeo has a partner called a mulbut or 'water friend' who monitors their condition underwater.


1:59 "This is my mulbut for today who will be watching my dive and come to my rescue whenever I have a problem."

They let each other know when they spot a potential catch.
8:09 ./
"It's down here where you can reach, in the middle." / "Ah, I see."

Successful catches are celebrated together.
7:00 ? ! !
"Did you catch it?" "Wow, abalone!"

And harvests are shared among the group.

"Senior haenyeo teach young haenyeo how and where to catch food. They also share their catch when their bags are full. The haenyeo community is formed by great camaraderie between the senior and junior haenyeo."

And of course, they let go of young catches.
4:51 . . .
"Baby sea cucumber. We can't eat it yet. We have to let it go since it's still young."

The group has lots of fun together.

But the water doesn't only hold sea creatures.
It also contains waste.


"Marine pollution and fast-changing sea temperatures due to global warming have put the lives of haenyeos at risk in recent years. The types of catchable seafood have changed, and many divers have lost their lives due to being caught underwater by abandoned nets, hooks, and plastics."

"Since the ocean is too polluted with waste, there aren't enough sea creatures to catch. Old fishing nets have also led to accidents where haenyeo get caught in them."

"The most urgent issue is global warming killing the marine algae that shellfish consume, destroying the food chain. The waste from developments on land is also flowing into the ocean, contaminating the marine ecosystem."

Such disturbances in the ecosystem lead to barren seabeds.
Haenyeo say they directly feel such changes in the marine environment.

"Each year, urchin barren is worsening and other sea life is disappearing. I feel sad and burdened for my junior and future haenyeo."

"Really, there is no more sea life. Conches are disappearing and so are abalones. It's really sad."

To preserve the culture and history of haenyeo, regional governments are providing financial incentives for new haenyeo. They also support medical care for active and retired haenyeo.
A haenyeo museum also has been founded to highlight the haenyeo lifestyle.
Despite the efforts, however, experts say the priority should be preserving sea resources.

"We should work to establish a system for haenyeo to keep being able to catch sea creatures in their harvesting grounds."

A haenyeo with 35 years of experience, Kang Ae-shim, agrees.
She says that her life would be meaningless without the sea by her side.

"I think the regional leadership should work to prevent or minimize pollution.
The sea is like my mother, my husband, and my child -- something that I cannot exist without."


"Being a haenyeo is more than a job. It's a way of life that sustains the environment and upholds a culture of solidarity that will require continuous effort to preserve.
Lee Shi-hoo, Arirang News, Jeju."
Reporter : slee@arirang.com
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