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Preserving Jeju Island's haenyeo culture that is impacted by changing marine environment Updated: 2022-08-08 13:54:52 KST

The women divers of Korea's Jeju Island are famous for diving into the sea without any breathing apparatus to collect shellfish, holding their breath for minutes at a time.
In Korean, they're called Haenyeo.
But today, not only are most of them very old, their livelihoods and culture are threatened by damage to the marine ecosystem.
So communities are coming together to preserve this tradition.
Lee Shi-hoo reports.
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.
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.

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.

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

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


"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.

"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.

"It's down here where you can reach, in the middle." / "Ah, I see."

Successful catches are celebrated together.

"Did you catch it?" "Wow, abalone!"

And harvests are shared among the group.

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."

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."

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.
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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