Cheju's old women and the sea Divers: The women of this subtropical South Korean island have been plying their taxing trade since at least the 4th century B.C. But advancing age, declining seafood yields and pollution are conspiring against them.


January 03, 1998|By Sonni Efron | Sonni Efron,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ON PYONG VILLAGE, South Korea -- On a spit of volcanic rock that thrusts into an ocean once rich with abalone, octopus and sea urchin, Halmoni rocks back on her 72-year-old heels and crooks her head at her fishing net, her sun-scored face crinkling with disdain.

"What I caught today is worth less than 10,000 won" ($11), Halmoni grumbles, pointing to her heap of small, hard sea urchins. "I can't even buy a cookie for my grandson with this."

Don't be fooled. Halmoni is neither as poor nor as feeble as she sounds. Nearly every day, armed with nothing more than a net, a float, a chisel for prying shellfish off their rocks and an impressive set of lungs, the septuagenarian goes diving in the ocean for three to eight hours at a stretch, venturing as deep as 40 feet down to pluck the tasty seafood that flourish on the ocean floor. The women of subtropical Cheju Island have been plying this taxing trade since at least the 4th century B.C., according to medieval Chosun Dynasty accounts written by male bureaucrats who derided the diving women as "a vulgar breed."

Even now, the women's only concessions to modernity are the rubber wet suits that have replaced cotton clothing and the plastic foam that substitutes for the gourds that were once used as floats.

But the rugged divers of Cheju are a dying breed. Advancing age, declining yields, South Korea's new affluence, better opportunities for young women and pollution of ancient fishing grounds by encroaching urbanization all conspire against them.

Today, the women of On Pyong say their chief enemies are fish farms, which they blame for slowly poisoning Cheju's pure blue-green waters -- although local authorities insist that the mariculture is not a serious polluter.

The number of female divers has plunged from a peak of more than 24,000 in 1966 to fewer than 5,000, though the statistics are inexact, says An Mi Jeoung, 28, a graduate student in sociology at Cheju National University.

An, whose grandmother was a diver, is chronicling the emotional nuances of this disappearing way of life. The youngest Cheju diver An has found is 33, while the oldest is 90; most are in their 50s and 60s.

"Nobody wants to be a diver any longer, so in 30 years they will be extinct," An says.

"It won't take 30 years," says Hong Choon Ja, 56, former head of the Cheju Divers Association and the first woman to hold that job despite the fact that there have been no male divers on Cheju for centuries.

Hong charges that the divers' seafood yields have dropped about 25 percent since the advent of the fish farms, which first appeared in On Pyong in 1990. She fears that pollution may wipe out the sea creatures long before the divers lose the stamina to catch them.

"We raised a lot of protest and fought, but now the law allows the fish farms to release their waste water here, and all we can do is watch," Hong says.

"Now, because of our pressure, they have installed purification systems, but they have already done a lot of damage. They claim the water is clean and not harmful, but how can we tell?" she asks. "Where the water runs, within a year or two, the rocks change color and nothing lives there."

But while the Cheju divers' yields have plummeted, from 50.2 million pounds in 1985 to 20.8 million pounds in 1996, according to provincial government statistics, prices for the increasingly rare seafood are going up. The divers' catch fetched $24 million last year, up 47 percent from 1985. Abalone, which is becoming scarcer and is the most difficult to collect, fetches nearly $43 a pound, Hong says.

The divers bring in 20 percent of the seafood catch on Cheju Island, mainly delicacies such as sea urchin and abalone that can only be harvested by hand. They market their wares through their divers association, which in turn sells the fish to middlemen and exporters. The divers of each village lease their fishing grounds and seed their seas with abalone and sea urchin to boost their catch. Non-members are not allowed to dive.

Despite these protections, the women do not expect their market niche to last beyond this generation.

The fish farms have not yet figured out how to cultivate abalone -- but they do pose a serious threat to the divers. The first two farms on Cheju Island opened in 1987; now there are 113, producing 4,300 tons of fish, mostly sole, and raking in nearly $69 million in 1996, according to Lee Sung Hoon of the provincial government's fisheries section.

The fish farms are required to install water-purification systems on more than 5 percent of their water tanks, though the figure will be increased to 20 percent by 1999, Lee said.

To prevent seafood depletion, the government has placed restrictions on the size of the abalone and the quantity of sea urchins that can be harvested, Lee said.

But the On Pyong divers believe that these measures are inadequate.

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