South Korea's 'sea women' fear Fukushima discharge will end marine trade

By Minwoo Park and Daewoung Kim

BUSAN, South Korea (Reuters) - The ocean is like a "mother's embrace", says Kim Jung-ja, a South Korean who free-dives without oxygen, wearing a black wet suit, mask and fins to pick by hand abalone, sea cucumber and other marine life that she takes to market.

Now she wonders whether the traditional occupation she has pursued for more than 60 years, as one of the haenyeo, or "sea women", will change forever, after Japan began discharging into the Pacific radioactive water from its Fukushima nuclear plant.

"Please help us," she pleaded. "Please do not discharge."

Kim, 73, whose mother taught her to dive at age 10, says she and many among her dwindling community in the southern coastal town of Gijang worry that their centuries-old trade will be devastated by the release, expected to run for decades.

It is just the latest threat to their profession, after climate change, pollution and a sharp fall in the numbers of women willing to brave the often icy waters to harvest seafood.

With 507 women registered, Kim belongs to the largest group of haenyeo in the port city of Busan, but only about 300 are still active, most of them ageing. The youngest is 65. They fear they may be the last of the sea women.

"The Japanese government is bringing a war without swords and guns against the entire world," said Kim, who joined protest rallies in front of the Japanese Consulate in the Korean city of Busan to demand that the plan be dropped.

"The whole world should be up in arms to stop them."


However, she fears that neither the government of South Korean or that of Japan government is listening to the concerns of their fishermen and consumers.

Japan has said the water release is safe. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) approved the plan in July, as satisfying international standards, with "negligible" impact on people and the environment.

South Korea has said it respects IAEA's 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 from China and public concern in South Korea.

Kim believes the discharge will contaminate the waters around the Korean peninsula, while fisheries officials and merchants worry safety concerns will keep consumers away.

Haenyeo dive from October through July each year, keeping the summer months off-season, to allow what Kim calls "baby sea creatures" to spawn and grow in "our precious sea" they have worked hard to protect.

"Haenyeo should not disappear in my generation," said Kim. She and her colleagues had to suspend plans to start a school to train younger women in the trade after news of Japan's plan.

"Young people should keep this wonderful job, but the Fukushima water release is extremely disturbing for us," she added.

(Reporting by Minwoo Park; Editing by Jack Kim and Clarence Fernandez)