If your idea of a good holiday is taking part in the mass killing of fish, brought in from farms to be crammed like sardines into a river -- blocked and sealed solely for this purpose -- awaiting thousands of people to lower their hooks through holes bored by electric drills into an artificially frozen surface, then perhaps you want to look away.
If not, you might want to reconsider your plans, just in case you had in mind the Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival in Gangwon Province among your potential destinations.
So what makes this festival worthy of our attention? Well, for starters, the total number of visitors to this event alone eclipsed 1.65 million people in 2018, including more than 100,000 foreigners. There is no other regional event in Korea comparable to this magnitude of popularity and scale. In any case, the Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice festival has been regarded as a huge success and a role model for other regional festivals. And this is exactly what makes it so dangerous.
To do justice to the reality of this festival, one needs to carefully go over the long list of extremely serious problems the festival organizers do their best to conceal or deny.
First, there have never been sancheoneo, or mountain trout, in Hwacheon. The mountain trout is a species introduced to Hwacheon and has nothing to do with the local aquatic ecosystem. Therefore, the festival relies on fish farms to supply around 180 tons of live fish reared in about 17 facilities across the country. As a consequence, these invasive species introduced into the river may seriously disturb the local ecosystem.
Second, to make room for a massive fishing site that can support thousands of people at one time, the original Hwacheon River has been destroyed and drastically modified beyond recognition. The river bed and natural sediments have been dug up along the 3-4 kilometers length of the river, flanked and fortified by dykes and stop gates to control the water flow. As a result, the natural course of the river has been completely blocked, with dire consequences for the inhabitants of the river and adjacent wetlands.
Third, the enormous scale and consumptive nature of the festival are creating serious waste problems in the environment. In 2004, a cameraman dived into the waters of the festival grounds right after it had ended, in an effort to assess the condition of the Hwacheon River. Television viewers were shocked to see corpses of fish littering the floor, contaminating the water.
Fourth, millions of fish are exposed to an extreme level of stress and cruelty during the festival. The extraordinarily high population density experienced by the fish is utterly incomparable to natural conditions, and without any doubt, would cause immense stress to all the individuals crammed into the site.
And last but not least, standing on a river with almost 10,000 other people, all with the same purpose of plucking those unfortunate creatures from underwater, amid shrieks of delight from lucky parties who have succeeded in shooting fish in a barrel, is definitely not something you want your children to attend.
To stop this horrendous practice from spreading across the country, we urgently need your help. And you can do that oh so easily -- by just not going there.
From Sanha Kim, Ph.D.
Managing director of the Biodiversity Foundation