Livelihoods of South Korea's "sea women" threatened by climate change

In South Korea, haenyeo, or "sea women", spend up to seven hours a day in the frigid seas off Geoje Island harvesting seashells, conches, seaweed, sea cucumbers, and more to sell in local markets. While the tradition of diving for marine life is centuries old, most of the haenyeo have been practicing their trade for decades, from their teens to their 80s.

"I'll continue unless I'm sick, and my wish is this seafood can live until then so that I can continue this work," said 86-year-old Ko Bok-hwa, who has been a diver since she was 13.

Two divers, Jin So-hee and Woo Jung-min, are both 35, making them some of the youngest women following this centuries-old free-diving tradition in the face of advancing fishing practices and everyday village life. They've started a YouTube channel called "Yozum Haenyeo" (Modern Sea Women) to chronicle their lives and works.

But the rapid progress of climate change, and the continued pollution of the Earth's oceans, are threatening the women's livelihoods and traditions.

Clad in a black wet suit and pink face mask, Jin So-hee's figure cleanly parts the green-blue water until she abruptly dives below the surface, her purple fins disappearing into the deep.

When she resurfaces a minute and a half later, her gloved hands grip six or seven sea cucumbers, their spiked backs glistening in the sun.

"This is the biggest one, what do we do?" she asks her partner, Woo Jung-min. "The boss is going to be mad. He told us to bring in the really big ones today."

The changes brought by climate change and pollution are obvious to the haenyeo, and their anecdotal evidence bolsters the findings of South Korean scientists and researchers at the National Institute of Fisheries Science.

"I thought that as long as my body is healthy, I could have been the oldest haenyeo when I'm 90 or 100," Jin told Reuters.

"Now that I think about it, my health is not the only concern. I'm worried this job will change drastically or even disappear because of climate change."

Warmer waters around Korea (rising 2.2℉ between 1968 and 2017) have brought in more subtropical marine life, displacing the haenyeo's traditional harvest of shellfish and seaweed with rocky algae and coral.

Jeon Byung-hee, an official with the Korea Fisheries Resources Agency's Ecological Restoration Division, said:

"If seaweeds disappear, it takes away a source of food for animals, spawning grounds, and habitats…"

The dissipation of seaweed and other marine life is forcing the haenyeo to dive deeper, making an already dangerous job more complicated. Jin says she's finding more golf balls than sea cucumbers these days. Her diving companion, Woo, says: "The problems seem very real to us…This is really serious."