SEOUL, Nov. 21 (Korea Bizwire) – The government has shut down Suncheon Bay and the surrounding area for an indefinite period after the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs announced yesterday that bird droppings containing a highly pathogenic form of avian influenza had been discovered.
Roads leading to and around the popular tourist location famous for its scenic views will be placed under quarantine as part of the public safety authorities’ attempts to get ahead of the disease.
Avian influenza (AI) first appeared on the Korean peninsula in 2003, and outbreaks of varying scale and lethality have become a yearly plague on the domestic populations of chickens and ducks. It is believed that migratory birds bring the disease with them from the Chinese mainland.
It is from the fecal matter of these migrating birds that authorities identified the presence of H5N6, the second discovery following the detection of the virus at a duck farm in Gochang, a county more than 130 km from Suncheon Bay.
The discovery of H5N6 has spooked both regulators and the private sector, as the specific subtype was behind a particularly vicious spell of AI that claimed the lives of 38 million poultry from November 2016 to February of this year.
The economic impact of the disease is already being felt in Gochang and Suncheon, as the government’s containment measures have effectively closed down the local tourism industry, a temporary suspension that could evolve into a death sentence for the restaurants, hotels and shops that depend on a steady stream of outside visitors.
Whereas more than 100,000 descended on the bay earlier this month to walk amongst the tall reeds and birdwatch, except for the 38 park employees guarding the entrance to the bay, not a soul was in sight on November 21.
When asked about the government-mandated closure, a government worker said, “In the past, when avian influenza was discovered in the region, Suncheon Bay was closed as a precautionary measure, but the fact that the disease was discovered here this year is worrying.”
Glancing at the empty parking lots that were overflowing with cars a few weeks ago, she said, “It’s a shame that [the discovery of the virus] has coincided with tourist season.”
Not far from the bay, small business owners were left shaking their heads and ruing the loss of customers so soon into the winter season.
One bed and breakfast proprietor clucked her tongue and said, “It’s safe to say that this winter is a wrap,” while a restaurant owner sighed and added, “Normally 200 on weekdays and up to 700 on weekends, but I think the tourist season is over.”
Prospects are equally grim, if not worse, over in Gochang. The North Jeolla Provincial Government has shut down its winter hunting reservations, which is expected to result in a loss of 200 million won from government coffers. The province will monitor the spread of the H5N6 virus and potentially open up pockets of the reserve to the public, but it is unlikely that it can recoup its losses completely.
Trepidation is high among those whose livelihoods are directly tied to the welfare of the poultry they raise. The symptoms of the disease among the ducks in Gochang have so far amounted to green fecal matter and little else. In contrast, the deadly epidemic early this year killed the birds it infected in a rapid manner. However, no one is celebrating yet, as the virus can lie dormant for up to 21 days before symptoms begin to emerge.
The present uncertainty likely compounds the anxiety and apprehension that poultry farmers feel. The year was a punishing one for the industry, as the prior attack of avian influenza was followed in the summer by sweltering heat waves that decimated flocks.
Poultry farms beginning to go under will only be the first domino to fall in a long chain reaction that will affect the nation’s 22,529 chicken restaurants (2013 Statistics Korea), not to mention retailers and bakeries. The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs issued a national 48-hour ban on all shipments of poultry goods starting at midnight on November 20, but what course of action the government will take next is still uncertain.
With a 5.4-magnitude earthquake in the rearview mirror and the 2018 Winter Olympics to take place in Pyeongchang in a few months, amidst the rumblings emanating from North Korea and thawing relations with China, the last thing the country needs is another bout of avian influenza to devastate the poultry industry.
President Moon Jae-in during a cabinet meeting on November 21 said, “With the PyeongChang Winter Olympics approaching, I ask the relevant ministries and municipal governments to work together and exert maximum effort in triggering a quick response and preventing the spread of the avian influenza virus.”
Lina Jang (firstname.lastname@example.org)