Archive for July, 2010

Whale Wars

July 4, 2010

My friend Kyle wrote an email asking about the Japanese opinion on the Whale Wars. I was going to just reply to him, but as my letter became lengthier, I decided that perhaps it would be better to share with a larger audience.

First some disclaimers: I have only talked to a few people about whaling, all of them have been totally unaware that Japan is hunting whales. I’ve followed it in the news, but since the Japanese used in newspapers is far above my level, I’ve only been able to read translations or articles written by native English speakers. The latter being heavily biased against whaling. With that in mind, you could probably spend a few hours surfing the Internet and learn everything I’m about to tell you. Think of this as sort of an overview of a topic you may be unaware of.

In the same way that people in the US have a mental disconnect between the meat in the supermarket and the fact that it comes from living animals on a farm somewhere, so too do the Japanese have a disconnect between whale meat and the whale. Although aware that you can find the meat in some markets, the source of the meat is somewhat of an unknown. The people I’ve talked to about it are totally unaware that Japan is hunting whales in the Antarctic. They are, however, aware that there is controversy around the topic of Japan and whales.

For those of you who don’t know, despite a global ban on whaling, Japan is one of three countries still engaged in the practice. They hunt in Antarctica killing about 900 whales which are then sold as meat. The Japanese are exploiting a loophole in the ban which allows a limitless killing of whales for scientific research purposes. This works because the ban was designed to stop commercial whaling, yet not impede scientific research.

It’s obvious to everyone that the “research” is farce (even Japan makes no secret of the fact that the whales are sold for meat), and that there is no scientific value to killing 900 whales which you couldn’t get from killing just 9. However legal loopholes are in vogue (a la Guantanamo), so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Japan is hiding behind this claim.

Another tactic which has been employed is vote buying of poor nations who are members of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Japan recently had a scandal break over this, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the anti-whaling camp has been doing a bit of this themselves. The hope for Japan is to lift the ban and set reasonable quotas.

The “war” part of the whale wars refers primarily to the efforts of the Sea Shepard environmental group which has been using their ships to harass the Japanese whaling fleet. The activists have been doing all kinds of things like ramming ships, throwing chemicals at people, and in the latest round, boarding ships with knives (this last bit was only done once, see the next paragraph). Meanwhile the Japanese have resorted to water cannons, as self defense, to fend them off. I don’t see it as much of a stretch to say that the Sea Shepard group has been engaging in tactics which could get them branded as terrorists. On the other hand, they seem to be the only people who care about Japan’s activities, and they have been wholly successful in bringing it to light. The latest news is that Australia and New Zealand are contemplating legal action against Japan over the whaling activities.

The whale war hit a new high recently when a whaling ship struck a smaller protest vessel, crippling it, which eventually lead to its sinking (this was bound to happen sooner or later). Both sides blame each other. The video of the event is inconclusive, the protest vessel is clearly lying in the path of the whaling vessel. When it became apparent that the whaling vessel was not going to maneuver to avoid collision, the protest vessel attempted to do so, much too late, and it appears that the first burst form the engines was to propel it farther into the path of the oncoming ship before switching to reverse. Not that it matters much since the vessel would have been hit anyway, but perhaps the damage might have been less. My understanding of maritime law suggests that the protesters were more in the wrong for intentionally placing their vessel in the path of another less maneuverable vessel, possibly engaged in fishing activities, at the time, which would farther restrict their maneuverability.

Enraged about this, the captain of one of the Sea Shepard vessels decided to throw rationality (and sanity) to the wind and boarded one of the whaling ships in the dead of night armed with a knife. He was arrested and held on the whaling ship until they returned to Japan. He is currently being tried for various crimes (along the lines of obstruction and trespassing) to which he has plead guilty, with the sole exception of an attempted murder charge. Japan also placed the founder and CEO of the Sea Shepard organization on the Interpol watch list.

I have not seen a lot on the whale wars in the Japanese press. Other than reporting the facts of the case, the news has remained pretty silent about the issue. Instead they focus more on the policy angle. I think that this is one of the reasons why the Japanese I’ve talked to don’t know much about their country’s whaling. I did however read a Japanese article where the Japanese whalers were quite upset that this year’s catch was only 450 whales.

The only articles I’ve seen which appear to be written by Japanese writers are basically of the sentiment that whales are like any other food source. They claim that their hunt is sustainable, and no one has claimed that Japan is hunting endangered species. There is, however, a bit of debate over what the correct numbers are for sustainability since neither side has any way of accurately counting whale populations, let alone agreeing on a number of permissible kills. The articles further state that the anti-whaling camp has turned whales into sacred cows (quite literally), among their claims, that whales are so intelligent that killing them should be considered murder. The Japanese feel that the whale is no more special than a pig, which is also quite intelligent, yet not surrounded by controversy. Their feeling is that western cultures are trying to impose their social values on Japan.

Perhaps the most ironic twist to this whole affair is that Japanese don’t even like whale meat that much. The people I’ve talked to have all tried whale, but don’t eat it on a regular basis. It’s like eating ostrich burgers, you might try it once or twice if it is offered, but you probably won’t seek it out. Historically speaking, whale has been a part of the diet of the Japanese for a long time, but it was hardly a common meal. Catches seem to have been mostly based on the luck of finding a distressed whale. The large scale hunting didn’t start until after World War II, well after the western nations had already fished the whale populations into the danger zone. The reason for the sudden interest in whale was simple; war devastated Japan was unable to feed it’s literally starving post war population. Whale became a standard school lunch item. In fact, this, over anything else, seems to be the major reason for whale consumption, the large, and now quite elderly population waxing nostalgic of their youthful school days.

Most accounts of the meat describe it as a little tough and oily. The whale sashimi is said to be quite good though. The problem, however, is that the whales are caught and frozen in Antarctica before being shipped back home, so the meat really doesn’t make for good sashimi. A locally caught whale makes for a much better experience. I have yet to try it.

The strange thing about the whale industry is the way it’s caught up in itself. By many accounts, the operation isn’t profitable, and is subsidized by the government for unknown reasons. The only political group really interested in keeping it around are the hard line nationalists, but it seems that the demand for the meat isn’t there. One article suggested that it might be a “you can’t tell us what to do” mentality which was keeping it going, while another suggests that it is political pork spending.

Some have suggested that opening up commercial whaling, without subsidies, in Japan would actually kill the industry as demand isn’t high enough to overcome the costs. But there is also the possibility that a new use will be found, like cosmetics, which will raise the demand for whale again.

One thing is for sure, the current situation is leading to a black market trade in whale meat. Recently a sushi shop in Korea and another in California were shut down when it was discovered that they were selling whale meat. Through DNA testing authorities were able to trace the meat back to a whale caught in Japan. The international sale of whale products is also banned.

There was some talk in the IWC of very limited (400 or so) whale catch quotas phasing out (or at least down) over a few years. The hope was to bring Japan and the other whaling nations back into compliance and have better regulation. Two interesting problems came out of this, South Korea felt that if whaling were permitted it should get some of the action, and the hard line anti-whaling countries refused to compromise on lifting the ban. In the end, the debate was pushed off another year, frustrating everyone. It seems to me, however, that Japan would have traded a tight quota for hunting in their local waters with the promise of fresher meat.

And so the war rages on.