Saturday, September 17, 2011

Haenyeo of Jeju-do

Jai Ok Shim, Executive Director of Fulbright in Seoul, introduced tonight's research lecturer Grace Ha. Grace has an undergraduate background in marine biology and environmental conservation and became interested in the haenyeo in a short passage in her marine biology textbook that piqued her interest and resulted in her Fulbright project concerning the haenyeo and traditional ecological knowledge, a study which isn't based solidly on science but weaves science and a people's belief systems. The blurb summarizing her research project follows:

"On Jeju Island, fisherwomen, known widely today as haenyeo (해녀), have a long-standing tradition of free-diving into the ocean for seafood such as abalone, kelp, seaweed, sea cucumber, turban shell and octopus. Over the past year, Grace has been researching these women and the Jeju fishing villages, focusing largely on their traditional ecological knowledge and resource management techniques. Grace has been specifically investigating what implications this disappearing way-of-life may have on future marine conservation efforts."

Grace Ha collected her research through literature research and language study prior to going to Jejudo and more while on Jeju. She conducted interviews and had personal communication with the haenyeo, fishing cooperative leaders, and scholars on the topic. And she also participated in the hanyeo school, not really a school but a practice hands-on in-the-water one-day (or more) experience of being a haenyeo. She laughingly said that when she participated and took her dive, without prior training as the training is "in the water", the haenyeo in charge of her just pointed down into the depths of the water and said things like, "Hey, you didn't stay down long enough" or "You'll never collect anything if you don't go deeper" or "What are you doing? Go down again!" And that was her experience at the haenyeo school! While many haenyeo can go down as much as 20 meters and stay down up to 3 minutes, the average is 5-6 meters and underwater 1-2 minutes. There is no way that a beginner could or should attempt such, but by pushing one's self, one can supposedly expand the human limits of diving.

The Haenyeo of Jejudo

The haenyeo (해녀/海女), which means 'woman of the sea', have also been known as jamsu, literally 'entering into the water' but having the traditional meaning of 'divers/diving women'. Jamnyeo is another traditional term and is translated roughly the same. The haenyeo are not mermaids, indomitable Amazons or super-women. They were and still are divers, using no breathing equipment, only a rubber suit, mask, fins and weights. They carry a float (태왁?), a net (마앙사리), a spear (작살) and a curved pick or sickle (비창?). They had a job, low-class and underpaid in Joseon Dynasty, but one which gave them income and therefore independence in the highly regimented Joseon dynasty when women were seen as only homemakers and child breeders. The diving for sea urchins, sea abalone and other sea goods on the ocean floor was a job principally for women, ironic as it may seem. Men's jobs were related to the hazards of fishing (beltfish, squid, etc) in the turbulent waters, both far and near, around the island. Many died fighting the treachery of ocean and a large female population remained.

Whether a large portion of haenyeo are Christians, I don't know, but I do know that there are many shamanistic rituals, an annual shaman festival for the gods of the ocean which includes a gut (exoricism) to appease angry gods and pay tribute to protective ocean and natural element spirits. In Korean communities that have lower education and are living close with the elements, shamanism is still strong and the approximate 100 villages harboring haenyeo maintain rituals and beliefs for their spiritual well-being while in the ocean.

In recent years, the haenyeo have become a tourism symbol of Jejudo, the island known for its 3 Ws — wind, water, women … and of course rocks. This tourist symbol will be just that and nothing more in a few years as the haenyeo discourage their daughters from entering the trade, and a rapidly declining number of elderly haenyeo comprise the majority. Many die - the young, the old, the experienced - in their attempts to stay under the water as long as they can in order to gather the most sea products as possible. The trade is dangerous, not to mention physically demanding and now women, no longer contrained by rigid gender roles, can have other jobs and ones which are both safe and guarantee independence, so haenyeo mothers refuse to teach their secrets to their daughters, as becoming a haenyeo is a trade passed down only from mother to daughter. So, the traditional ecological knowledge is dying with the aging haenyeo.

By definition, traditional ecological knowledge is "A cumulative body of knowledge, practice and belief evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment" [Berkes, Colding and Folke, 2002, 'Rediscovery of traditional ecological knowledge as adaptive management' Ecological Applications 10:1251-1262.] What the haenyeo pass along to their daughters is a keen understanding of the tides, underwater geography and topography, weather and waves, ecology of marine life according to season, and much more. They have their own specialized folk taxonomy of the ocean and are aware of spatial changes within the ocean and to a large extent aware of the impact their local development has on the marine ecosystem. They also pass along communal cleaning and gardening techniques, that is, they 'weed out' underwater plants that invade or encrouch on the garden territory of the more desireable flora and fauna.

In 1966, there were 23,081 registered haenyeo but those numbers have dropped to 4,995 in 2010 with 43.3% of the diving women 70 years old and older. With the advent of rubber suits for the haenyeo in the 1970s, a drop in the numbers of underwater fisherwomen was appropriate but those numbers are still rapidly declining. Prior to the rubber suits, the women wore cotton smocks and could dive for only 2 hours max per day, taking breaks to warm themselves, but the rubber suits made it possible to dive for 6-7 hours straight, which really taxed the ocean's gardens around the island.

Since the 1970s, overfishing has become a ecological problem, not to mention the pollutions from fish farms that have sprung up around Jejudo. Marine ecology is further damaged by climate change, resulting in the disappearance of algae and key species extending the Korean diet. To try to control the ecological decline, current resource management in Jeju fishing villages has resulted in top-down policies like (1) no diving during breeding season [which last 2-3 months. It seems the haenyeo dive year-round but when certain species are breeding, those species are not to be including in their "catch of the day"]; (2) catch size limits on species have been imposed, and (3) diving is limited to a certain number of days per month as based on neap tides, ex. ~15 days/month; and finally (4) a guard is posted on fishing grounds to prevent poaching [there is a lot of competition between villages ... not just local competition that exists even between mother and daughter].

Grace presented an interesting twist of opinions regarding the future ecology of the ocean around Jejudo if the haenyeo cease to exist as fisherwomen. One opinion is from Youngsoon Go, Sehwa-ri fishing cooperative leader and the contrasting opinion is from Baekyeon Im, Hado-ri fishing cooperative leader. Youngsoon Go says, "Without haenyeo around to keep overfishing, Jeju's oceans will be able to recover" while Baekyeon Im says, "Without haenyeo, who will be here to ensure Jeju has healthy oceans?" Both have a point. While the haenyeo now tend to overfish having the advantage of working longer with the advantage of their rubber suits, they still garden and cultivate the ocean of unwanted flora - three examples of the valuable garden of Jejudo but which other countries see as invasive are two kinds of seaweed and a crab, all much loved by Koreans and encouraged to reproduce and grow in the gardens around Jeju.


  1. Among the registered haenyeo (female shellfish and other sea life divers) of Jeju, only one is in her 20s, 5 in their 30s, 44 in their 40s, 1,221 in their 50s and 60s, 1,015 in their 70s, and 296 in their 80s. - (July 10, 2014)

  2. Here's a look at shamanism on Jeju Island, as well as a book coming out on shamanism there -

  3. A photo exhibition entitled Hanyeo: Women of the Sea - excellent background information and allusions to the Hanyeo as becoming UNESECO intangible cultural assets of 2016 -