Monday, March 10, 2008

Down by the Sea

Though it is hard to believe that the top bureaucrats of the Fisheries Agency would accept the end of research whaling---the defense of which is the only way most of them have of becoming famous (if only as targets of intense, worldwide loathing)--The Independent reports that a revival of the commercial coastal fishery, the only solution that treats everyone, the biosphere included, with some semblance of respect, is finally being discussed.

Secret plan to let Japan resume whaling
The Independent

London meeting discusses compromise over much-flouted ban on commercial hunting

By Geoffrey Lean and Jonathan Owen - Sunday, 9 March 2008 - Controversial plans to lift the worldwide ban on whaling were presented to a secret meeting of more than 70 governments in London last week.

The plans, which have alarmed environmentalists, have been welcomed by both pro- and anti-whaling governments and seek to lift a long stalemate over hunting, enabling Japan officially to resume commercial whaling for the first time in more than 20 years.

The plans would permit the world's main whaling nation to carry out a limited hunt in waters close to its shores. In return, Japan would have to stop exploiting a loophole in international law, through which it kills hundreds of whales around Antarctica each year under the guise of "scientific research".

The plans – drawn up at another unpublicised meeting in Tokyo last month – were presented by the governments of Argentina and the Netherlands to a closed three-day session of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) at the Renaissance Hotel near Heathrow airport, which ended yesterday...
Coastal whaling is historic and cultural in a way that pelagic whaling is not (it was somewhat difficult to be a pelagic whaler during the Tokugawa period, you know, sakoku and all that). While pelagic research whaling is a ward of the state and of benefit to the bureaucrats who defend it, coastal whaling is commercial (well largely, anyway) and is of direct benefit to the communities practicing it.

Accepting coastal commercial whaling of Minke whales in the waters near Japan offers a workaround for some intractable differences of opinion. The IWC would extend its formal mandate over whaling, drawing in activities that have been destabilizing the organization--either through the abuse of the research clause (Japan), through whaling for non-baleen whales not on the IWC lists (Japan) and through out and out rogue whaling (Iceland and Norway).

It would establish a de facto Southern Ocean whale sanctuary.

The resumption of coastal commercial whaling will also relieve the pressures built up by multiple hypocrisies. IWC rules accept the hunting of the bowhead whale (Hokkyoku kujira - Balaena mysticetus) by North American indigenous peoples. In terms of impact the killing of an an individual adult has upon the gene variation within the population of the target species, permitting any hunting of the bowhead is madness.

Similarly unsound in terms of impact upon reputation of the IWC is the the continued legal Euro-American hunt for large bluefin tuna in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. The number of wild adult bluefin has plummeted yet North American and European and fishermen to continue go out into international waters, hunt them and then send the carcasses to Japan. Banning Japanese hunting a small number of minke whale-- in raw numbers a more numerous species--inside their own EEZ looks a lot like discrimination.

Outsiders should also appreciate that by appearing to be a concession on the part of the international community, the resumption of coastal commercial whaling would remove an arrow from the nationalist quiver. The anti-whaling = anti-Japanese equation is a recurring charge of the right--and one that many Japanese can take seriously.

Allowing the resumption of coastal whaling for minke might finally give governments and activists some leverage in the struggle to abolishe the abominable Taiji porpoise and dolphin slaughters.

I can sympathize with the anti-whaling organizations; they feel final victory is so close. After all, the tactics they are using now against Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean convinced the Soviet Union (The Soviet Union! The Empire of Evil!) to abandon commercial whaling.

However, the tactics that brought the Soviet Union to heel will not clip the fins of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. In a democracy with superempowered rural votes, a bureaucracy with a chip on its shoulder and nationalism as the one, true political movement linking the cities and the rural communities -- the attempt to box in the whalers has an effect opposite to the one desired: it has swelled the ranks of true believers in the movement and has deepened national commitment to the cause.

There is a ticking clock. The confrontation in the Southern Ocean, should it continue, could prompt the dispatch of a Coast Guard cutter (the unofficial motto of the Japan Coast Guard: "Shoot first--and there will be no questions later") increasing the possibility of truly violent clashes. If the activists challenge the whaling vessels in the presence of the Japan Coast Guard, the possibility of a tragedy occurring will not be zero.

Let us hope that cooler heads and braver hearts prevail to find the middle ground.


Last week Christopher Hogg produced a fair but perhaps overly dispassionate story for the BBC about the fishery in Wada, the whaling village closest to Tokyo (which, as you can see in the above photo, is all a-bustle on a Sunday afternoon). The Economist published a story on the town's claim to fame in July 2007.

For statistics and information about the existing commercial coastal whaling fishery, see the website of the Nihon Kogata Hogei Kyōkai. Its fey English language slide presentation can be found here.

For statistics and news about whale meat stocks, remains the English-language site of reference.

Wadaura Station
Minami Bōsō City, Chiba Prefecture
August 6, 2006
Photo credit: MTC


Jan Moren said...

Agree completely on the basic double standard - some people are apparently more indigenous than other - inherent in the current whaling regulations. There is great harm done in conflating the completely rational matter of whale species extinction and the parochial moral arguments that eating whales are somehow wrong (while eating smarter and more social pigs apparently are not). International regulations can and should not rest on local morals. I also agree that shifting the regulations in the way proposed would be a great step forward.

With that said: whale tastes pretty bad. I mean, really not good at all. I happily eat most things I get served, and there are only a few items I really do not like. Whale meat - somewhat stringy, very greasy, with a gritty texture - is one of them (along with pig's-blood pudding and boiled, mashed cow lung).

I am apparently not alone either. From what I understand, whale used to be an important supplementary diet for poorer people in Japan, served for school lunches for instance, and I can certainly understand that. It must contain a lot of nutrients and giving you lots of calories with only a modest intake. But it has the stigma of being food for the poor still, and for good reasons.

If or when the political dimension is removed, I rather suspect that whale consumption soon would decrease. The government apparently already has to run PR-campaigns to be able to sell the modest amount of meat produced already, and when people no longer feel a particular patriotic obligation to buy it, I don't think many people will any more. The end result of this plan may well be a total reduction in the number of whales caught by Japanese fisheries.

MTC said...

Herr morén -

I agree with all of your points.

If taste and texture were the consumption criteria, rather than patriotic cussedness, the annual tonnage of whale meat eaten by humans would be small. Very small.