BUSAN, South Korea — The ocean is like a “mother’s embrace,” says Kim Jung-ja, a South Korean who snorkels without oxygen, wearing a black wetsuit, mask and flippers to hand-scavenge abalone, sea cucumbers and others. the marine life it markets.
She now wonders if the traditional profession she has practiced for more than 60 years, as haenyeo, or “women of the sea”, will change forever, after Japan begins to discharge radioactive waters into the Pacific. of its Fukushima nuclear power plant.
“Please help us,” she pleaded. “Please don’t unload.”
Kim, 73, whose mother taught her to dive when she was 10, says she and many members of her declining community in the southern coastal town of Gijang fear their centuries-old trade be devastated by this release, which is expected to last for decades.
It is only the latest threat to their profession, following climate change, pollution and a sharp drop in the number of women willing to brave the often freezing waters to catch seafood.
With 507 women registered, Kim belongs to the largest haenyeo group in the port city of Busan, but only around 300 are still active, most of them elderly. The youngest is 65 years old. They fear to be the last of the women of the sea.
“The Japanese government is waging a war without arms or swords against the whole world,” said Kim, who joined protest rallies outside the Japanese consulate in the Korean city of Busan to demand the plan be scrapped.
“The whole world should take up arms to stop them. »
However, she fears that neither the South Korean government nor that of Japan are listening to the concerns of their fishermen and consumers.
Japan said the release of water was safe. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) approved the plan in July, considering it to meet international standards and with “negligible” impact on people and the environment.
South Korea said it respected the IAEA review.
Thursday’s release by plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co Ltd (TEPCO) is part of a long and difficult process of decommissioning that has sparked protests in China and public concern in South Korea.
Kim believes the discharge will contaminate waters around the Korean peninsula, while fisheries officials and traders fear safety concerns will keep consumers away.
Haenyeo dives from October to July every year, keeping the summer months off-season, to allow what Kim calls ‘baby sea creatures’ to spawn and grow in ‘our precious sea’ which they have worked hard for. protect.
“Haenyeo should not disappear in my generation,” Kim said. She and her colleagues had to suspend their project to create a school to train young women in this profession after the announcement of the Japanese project.
“Young people should keep this wonderful job, but the Fukushima water release is extremely worrying for us,” she added.
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