SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean police have arrested three fishermen who are suspected of running a ring that traded in illegal whale meat, a coast guard official said on Tuesday.
South Korea prohibits commercial whaling and can send poachers to jail for up to three years. It allows the trade in whales caught accidentally by fishing crews or in whales that have washed up dead near its shores.
The arrest last week of the captain of a fishing vessel and two crew members followed the seizure of 50 tons of whale meat worth an estimated 800 million won ($788,600), said the coast guard official in the eastern city of Ulsan, which is home to scores of restaurants that serve whale meat.
The price of whale meat has as much as doubled due to the crackdown, South Korea’s largest daily newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo, said based on a survey it did of the market.
“The investigation is affecting prices,” said one local whale-meat restaurant owner who added she is paying roughly 50 percent more.
Conservation groups said despite the crackdown, illegal whaling still thrives because the accidental catch loophole offers a convenient excuse that is hard for authorities to verify and eateries are willing to pay large sums for the creatures.
Neighbor Japan, which considers whaling a cultural tradition, has drawn international criticism for what it calls a scientific whaling program that typically kills hundreds of whales. Japan agreed to an international moratorium on whaling that was set in place in 1986.
Reporting by Lee Jiyeon, writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani