On a South Korean isle, a life of squid fishing is slipping away

Kim Yae-sun will tell you straight out: The squid life is a hard life.

For the 72-year-old widow, who peddles the sea creatures from a waterside stand here, it means rising at 4:30 a.m. and going to church to pray for an ample catch. When her fisherman husband was still alive, she asked God to watch over the squid fleet that heads out to sea each night, the boats strung with lines of light bulbs like Christmas garlands.

In the 10 years since his death, her prayers have changed: Even though the squid life hasn’t been easy, she worries about the survival of the industry on Ulleungdo, an island 75 miles off South Korea’s eastern coast known as the squid capital of the country.

Photos: The squid life

But she’s got to hurry. Grabbing her cart, she hustles down the deserted streets of a harbor town named Dodong, wobbly on her arthritic left knee. Flinty-eyed and aggressive, she wants to be first in line for the auction that takes place at 5 a.m. sharp when the boats return loaded with squid.


She bargains hard. A diminutive, rotund woman with a raspy voice, she demands bigger squid at lower rates. Her husband, who died of a stroke, used to provide the catch, but now Kim has to do it herself.

She’s up to the task.

After paying for the squid to be gutted and cleaned, she hangs them out to dry on racks lined up a few feet from the water’s edge, swatting away the hornets that soon gather. After a few days under the sun, the squid — some dried, some still fleshy and semi-soft, like taffy — will be ready for sale to a nation that consumes squid like popcorn.

Her morning preparations finally done, Kim sat down like a queen on her throne, taking her place along the row of covered stalls for another day of hawking her product to the throngs of visitors who flock to the island.

“It’s better than nothing,” she said. “You can’t just sit around and not do anything.”

These days, fewer squid are being caught because of changing water temperatures and overfishing, a fact that threatens to transform Ulleungdo from a hardworking fishing island into a Disneyland-like tourist attraction.

A generation ago, most of the island’s 10,000 residents worked in the squid industry, either as sellers like Kim or as farmer-fishermen who toiled in the fields each winter and went to sea during summer.

Ulleungdo developed a reputation for large, tasty squid that were once exported to the mainland and Japan. The volcanic island, which can be circumnavigated in three hours by car, is also known for its seaside cliffs and picturesque views, which have begun to attract more tourists.

The number of mainlanders who visit here has risen from 160,000 a decade ago to 250,000 last year. Meanwhile, the total squid catch has decreased by more than a third. Nowadays only 20% of islanders work in the squid industry, with many having shifted to the tourism trade, said Park Su-dong, a manager in the island’s marine and fisheries office.

To keep the spirit of squid fishing alive, the island hosts a Squid Festival each July that kicks off with a ceremony asking the fishermen’s ancestors to keep the catch coming.

The tourists need no such encouragement. When the ferries arrive several times each day, sightseers disembark like invading armies. They hustle past the port-side squid statues to crowd into hotels and bed-and-breakfasts that advertise hiking and day tours.

For Kim, the influx of visitors may mean more sales in the short run, but she worries about the character of her island home. “If the squid go, this place just won’t be the same,” she said.

Within a few hours, amid the nonstop rush of passersby, Kim at last wrapped up another day of handing out free samples of semi-dried squid like Halloween candy. She shouted to two departing customers: “Come back! And next time bring your friends!” as adjacent sellers looked on with envy. The diminishing catch has made a once-sociable scene more cutthroat.

At dusk, the squid trawlers puttered out of the harbor, adjusting the strings of bulbs used to lure plankton, the squid’s favorite meal. Within an hour, the lights on the boats dotting the horizon pierced the darkening sky.

By then, Kim was already on her way home. But first, she stopped by the church for another round of prayers — because you can’t be too careful, she says. She eats most of her meals alone before retiring to the windowless basement apartment where she watches television and absent-mindedly rubs her bum knee.

Before settling in each night, she checks an adjacent cellar where a kerosene heater and fan dry more squid overnight, giving her tiny bedroom a faint odor of the sea. The life may be lonely, she said, but it’s all she has. Her three children long ago relocated to the mainland and rarely come to visit. Kim knows they all have their own lives to lead.

For now, she said, she’ll hang on to the squid life. She’s even developed a sort of odd affection for the ungainly creatures.

“They’re kind of cute, with their round little bodies and legs that squirt out,” she said. “They’re not bad at all.”

Photos: The squid life

Jung-yoon Choi of The Times’ Seoul bureau contributed to this report.