Jeju is a large volcanic island that lies off the southern coast of South Korea, at the meeting point of the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, and the Korea Strait (which leads northeastward into the Sea of Japan). Agriculture is difficult here because of the island’s rocky volcanic soils and rugged landscape, so the sea has always been a critically important source of food for Jeju’s inhabitants. For centuries, female divers known as haenyeo have been primarily responsible for gathering marine resources, including shellfish, seaweed, sea cucumbers, octopus, etc. They work with simple tools and without oxygen tanks, and pass their knowledge down from mother to daughter. The culture of the Jeju haenyeo is included on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage.
One of the most sought-after products that the haenyeos harvest from the sea is abalone, locally known as jeonbok. There are three main types of jeonbok in Jeju: dunggeun jeonbok (Haliotis discus discus), mal jeonbok (H. gigantea), and wang jeonbok (H. madaka); the smaller species H. diversicolor, known as obunjagi (also on the Ark of Taste) is also closely associated with Jeju, while bukbang jeonbok or cham jeonbok (H. discus hannai, a sister subspecies of H. discus discus) is found mainly in the colder waters around mainland Korea. Dunggeun jeonbok has an oval-shaped shell about 10-15 centimeters long (sometimes up to 20 cm). It tends to be larger than its northern relative, bukbang jeonbok, and is copper and pearl colored. This species spawns in September and October. Mal jeonbok is flat, wide, and almost circular in shape, and has a thin shell with an orange-beige hue. It grows to a length of up to 20 cm and spawns in November and December. Wang jeonbok is the largest type, growing to a length of up to 25 centimeters. Its shell is darker and rougher than that of the other abalones. It spawns in November-December, tends to live in deeper water than the other types of jeonbok, and is known for the soft texture of its flesh. Most jeonbok is harvested at depths of 10-15 meters or more, where only the most experienced haenyeos, known as sanggun, venture. The divers use a straight, flattened metal tool called a bitchang to prize the abalones from the rocks.
In former times, Korean kings received jeonbok from Jeju, and eventually there was also high demand from China. There were three traditional dried products made from jeonbok, known as chubok (the most common), jobok (the rarest), and inbok, prescribed amounts of which were presented to the government as tribute at set times throughout the year. Lee Geon, a Joseon-era scholar who lived on Jeju for several years in the early 17th century, wrote about the haenyeos, noting that their lives were very difficult due to government demand for jeonbok and the greed of the officials, who taxed them heavily. Today, most Jeju jeonbok is sold fresh or frozen; it is eaten raw or roasted and used in hot pots and porridges, and also has medicinal value.
In recent years, the haenyeos have observed declines in most of the species that they harvest, including jeonbok. There is an active aquaculture industry for growing jeonbok in Jeju (primarily Haliotis discus discus), althought this activity is more common on the mainland (especially for H. discus hannai). In addition, abalone spat (larvae that have attached to a substrate) grown in artificial conditions are distributed in the sea around Jeju, to boost the population. This helps the haenyeos maintain their livelihood, but is also masks ongoing problems of pollution, environmental change, and general overharvesting due to high market demand. At the same time, the number of haenyeos is decreasing—most of the divers are elderly and there are very few young women interested in continuing the practice. This is problematic not only because it threatens the future of an important cultural tradition, but also because the haenyeos have intimate, long-term knowledge of the sea and its resources. The reduction in the numbers of divers and abalones means that, today, only a few tonnes of Jeju jeonbok are hand harvested from the wild each year. Maintaining the culture and traditional knowledge of the haenyeos must be prioritized, as these women are vital stewards of Jeju’s marine ecosystem, and perhaps the best judges of its health.