What are the fish species that Koreans ate the most from the 20th century? They are pollacks from the East Sea and croakers from the Yellow Sea. Most families, if not all, probably prepared the pollacks and croakers for “charye,” an ancestral memorial ceremony, for Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving Day). They most likely used dried or pan-fried pollacks for Chuseok, while serving grilled or braised croakers. Since the old days, Koreans put on the charye table fish that are commonly caught in their areas, suggesting that pollacks and croakers were some of the most common fish species in Korea. Then, why have the pollacks disappeared in our waters?
When I was researching the fishing culture on the east coast, I had a chance to chat with fishers in their 60s or 70s while they were doing maintenance work on their nets. Asked what was the species they caught the most in the past, they said pollacks in unison. “At that time, there were no kudzu vines on the hills. There were pollack-drying sites in every neighborhood, and people used kudzu vines to hook them up because there was no nylon ropes like today,” one fisher said. “Every port was full of pollack-catching boats in the 1950s. People living in fishing villages from Goseong to Sokcho (Gangwon Province) all depended on pollacks for livelihood. Before Korea was divided, fishers used to sail from Samcheok to Hamkyong Province to catch pollacks. One boat accommodated seven to eight fishers. Each of them took two nets of catch. They took as much as they caught with their nets.” The fishers talked about their memories about pollack fishing untiringly.
When I asked what happened to the pollacks that were so common, each one presented his own opinion. “In the 1970s and 80s, we used to catch “nogari” (young pollacks) more than pollacks,” said one skipper. “Back then, we thought they were different species. The overfishing of nogari made pollacks extremely rare.” Another skipper cited higher water temperature as the first cause, while an octopus fisher blamed Chinese fishers for sweeping away fish in the North Korean waters.
The fishing industry attribute pollacks’ disappearance to a combination of multiple factors including overfishing of young ones and higher sea water temperature. According to the National Institute of Fisheries Science, more than 100,000 tons of pollacks were caught in the 1980s annually. However, the catch plunged to around 10,000 tons in the 1990s, before declining further to 25 tons in 2005 and to zero in 2008. People used to let dogs take pollacks in the past. Now, pollacks have become an extremely rare species. The National Institute of Fisheries Science put wanted poster up with a bounty of up to 500,000 won per head in an attempt to secure fertilized pollack eggs. The hard efforts paid off, as researchers succeeded in fully farming pollacks for the first time in the world. Due to the success, Pollack fry have been released for several years. Still, it is too early to tell whether we will able to see the pollacks that once prospered in the East Sea. It takes tremendous time and efforts to restore a destroyed fishery resource. I look forward to seeing pollacks return to our waters.