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Jeju's Miraculous Whale Sharks Caught or Smuggled?
By Jeju | Kang Hong-gyun
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There is a heated dispute about the "miraculous whale sharks" (reported in The Kyunghyang Shinmun, July 17, page 14) in Jeju: is it a real miracle or was the miracle fabricated?

Controversy surrounding the capture of the whale sharks intensified as the Jeju maritime police initiated an investigation on July 17. Some people posted their views on the Internet: "How does a species that doesn't even live in Jeju's coastal waters suddenly get caught in time for the opening of the Aqua Planet?" "They brought the sharks in through the backdoor, and put on a show claiming the sharks were caught in a stationary net."

However, Aqua Planet Jeju announced, "It was a lawful donation; there is nothing wrong."

Aqua Planet Jeju opened on July 13 in Seongsan-eup, Soegwipo, and in its aquarium there are a couple of whale sharks--4~4.5m long and weighing 500~600kg--greeting visitors. The largest fish existing in the world leisurely swim by befitting the largest aquarium in Asia.

A couple of whale sharks swim in the aquarium at Aqua Planet Jeju. /Aqua Planet

These whale sharks were caught in Jeju's coast 4 and 6 days, respectively, before the opening of the aquarium. Not a single whale shark has been caught in the last ten years, yet these two were caught, with a two-day interval, in a stationary net cast by the same person.

Aqua Planet had tried to import two whale sharks from China for its opening, but the Chinese government refused, leaving Aqua Planet to pace about. So for Aqua Planet, catching the whale sharks alive was a "present from the Dragon King of the Sea." Eventually they were able to save 2 billion won, 1 billion won for each whale shark, which they would have paid if they had imported the sharks from China.

However, the Jeju maritime police announced they would launch an investigation to see if there is cause for reasonable doubt in the capture of the whale sharks.

The maritime police raised two main questions. First, the person who discovered the sharks did not report them. Fishermen generally have to report to the maritime police when a whale is caught in their net, but in this case, the fisherman called the Aqua Planet without reporting it to the police.

Another question is that the fisherman donated the whale sharks for free. Shin Yong-hui, investigator at the Jeju maritime police said, "Even a single minke whale caught in a net can bring the fisherman tens of millions of won. That's why they call it the lottery of the sea.

Although this time they were sharks, still the fisherman donated both sharks for free." He added, "The investigation will focus on determining whether the whale sharks were smuggled or really caught."

Yu Deok-jong, Director of Hanwha Hotels & Resorts which operates Aqua Planet, announced, "After putting the whale sharks into the aquarium, it felt like such a dream that the employees actually pinched each other. The donation was made properly, and legally there is no question that can be raised."

Yu said, "Since we couldn't import the whale sharks from China, we tried importing them from Japan, but were unable to meet the opening date. Just in time we received news that whale sharks were caught alive in Aewol-eup, and an expert in transporting whales was also in Jeju from Japan, so we were able to safely move the sharks from Aewol-hang to Aqua Planet."

He added that it was a "double miracle" and that "Since whale sharks are fish, capturing the sharks is not forbidden in Korea and there is no obligation to report them."

Im Yeong-tae, the fisherman who caught the whale sharks said, "Since they were live whale sharks, I felt like I would be committing a sin. So instead of selling them, I called the Aqua Planet. I donated the sharks for free, and I hope they can contribute to scientific research."

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