Climate change threatens S.Korea's 'sea women'

"I'm Jin So-hee, 28years old, and the youngest 'haenyeo' on Geoje Island."

South Korean haenyeo, or ‘sea women,’ like So-hee spend their days free diving to the seabed.. to collect mollusks, seaweed, and other marine life to sell at local markets.

But their centuries-old livelihood is under threat from climate change, environmental pollution and advances in fishing practices.

JIN SWIMMING, COLLECTING SEA CUCUMBERS, COMING TO SURFACE AND SAYING (Korean): "This is the biggest one, what do we do?"

JIN'S PARTNER, WOO JUNG-MIN: "We should still catch them though. There aren't any (bigger ones)."

JIN SO-HEE: "The boss is going to be mad. He told us to bring in really big ones today."

The vast majority of living haenyeo are now over the age of 70.

But So-hee and her 35-year-old partner Woo Jung-min are on a mission to keep their tradition alive and salvage their seas.

They've set up a YouTube channel – called ‘Modern Sea Women’ - chronicling their lives and work will help their plight.

"Though our YouTube channel, I hope the culture of haenyeo will be preserved and will be passed on (to the next generation). And I hope subscribers have more awareness on the environment preservation.''

Every year the waters off the rocky shore of Geoje Island are a little less icy - warming as much as 2.6 times more than the world average, changing the undersea habitat and casting doubt on the future of the haenyeo.

Since 2011 the South Korean government has been working to reverse the ocean desertification caused by climate change.

The Marine Forest Creation Project involves planting new seaweed, which helps absorb carbon dioxide from the water, and removing the invasive sea urchins that eat the marine plant.

Jeon Byung-hee is an official with the Korea Fisheries Resources Agency's Ecological Restoration Division.

"If seaweeds disappear, it takes away a source of food for animals, spawning grounds, and habitats. And this leads to a decreased amount of sea life and resources and eventually ruins the marine ecosystem."

With less seaweed, which the haenyeo also harvest as food, the women increasingly have to dive deeper.

It’s becoming more physically challenging and dangerous ever year – especially for the older divers like 86-year-old Ko Bok-hwa.

(SOUNDBITE) (Korean) 86-YEAR-OLD HAENYEO, KO BOK-HWA, SAYING:

"In the past? compared to the past (when I began the job), the amount is just one-tenth. It wasn't good today."

So-hee says she makes half the amount of money that she did last year and finds more golf balls than sea cucumbers.

She worries that next year her income won’t be enough to put food on the table or that her job could disappear altogether because of climate change.

But the haenyeo will keep on diving, while they still can.

"I'll keep working unless I'm sick and my wish is for the sea life to live until then so I can continue this work."

Video Transcript

JIN SO-HEE: [SPEAKING KOREAN]

INTERPRETER: I'm Jin So-hee. I'm 28-years-old. And I'm the youngest "haenyeo" on Geoje Island.

- South Korean haenyeo, or "sea women," like So-hee, spend their days free diving to the seabed to collect mollusks, seaweed, and other marine life to sell at local markets. But they're centuries-old livelihood is under threat from climate change, environmental pollution, and advances in fishing practices.

JIN SO-HEE: [SPEAKING KOREAN]

INTERPRETER: These are the biggest ones. What do we do?

WOO JUNG-MIN: [SPEAKING KOREAN]

INTERPRETER: We should still catch them though. There aren't any bigger ones.

JIN SO-HEE: [SPEAKING KOREAN]

INTERPRETER: The boss is going to be mad. He told us to bring in really big ones today.

- The vast majority of living haenyeo are now over the age of 70. But So-hee and her 35-year-old partner, Woo Jung-min, are on a mission to keep that tradition alive and salvage their seas. They've set up a YouTube channel, called "Modern Sea Women," chronicling their lives and work, which they hope will help their plight.

JIN SO-HEE: [SPEAKING KOREAN]

INTERPRETER: Through our YouTube channel, I hope the culture of haenyeo will be preserved and will be passed on to the next generation. And I hope subscribers have more awareness on environmental preservation.

- Every year, the waters off the rocky shore of Geoje Island are a little less icy, warming as much as 2.6% times more than the world's average, changing the undersea habitat and casting doubt on the future of the haenyeo. Since 2011, the South Korean government has been working to reverse the ocean desertification caused by climate change. The Marine Forest Creation Project involves planting new seaweed, which helps absorb carbon dioxide from the water, and removes the invasive sea urchins that eat the marine plants. Jeon Byung-hee is an official with the Korea Fisheries Resources Agency's Ecological Restoration Division.

JEON BYUNG-HEE: [SPEAKING KOREAN]

INTERPRETER: If seaweeds disappear, it takes away a source of food for animals, spawning grounds, and habitats, and this leads to a decreased amount of sea life and resources, and eventually, ruins the marine ecosystem.

- With less seaweed, which the haenyeo also harvest as food, the women increasingly have to dive deeper. It's becoming more physically challenging and dangerous every year, especially for the older divers, like 86-year-old Ko Bok-hwa.

KO BOK-HWA: [SPEAKING KOREAN]

INTERPRETER: In the past? Compared to the past, I retrieved 10 times the amount I retrieved today. It wasn't good today.

- So-hee says she makes 1/2 the amount of money that she did last year, and finds more golf balls than sea cucumbers. She worries that next year, her income won't be enough to put food on the table or that her job could disappear altogether because of climate change. But the haenyeo will keep on diving while they still can.

KO BOK-HWA: [SPEAKING KOREAN]

INTERPRETER: I'll keep working, unless I'm sick. My wish is for the sea life to live until then, so I can continue this work.