You will never have seen a room clear more quickly than when Japan brings up talks of whaling. Sure, Iceland and Norway would hang around for shits-and-gigs, but almost everyone would throw japan under a bus – or maybe a ship? – on whaling. Though it has not always been this way. Japans views on whaling were once the global norm.
In the closing years of the 20th century many whales were on the edge of extinction due to hunting. Only by an 86’ Moratorium on ‘commercial whaling’ were these denizens of the deep given the chance to return. Now, some 30 years on, whales are looked at entirely different, for the most part. They are no longer just a source of meat, blubber and oil. They have gained a cultural value. A creature to be revered for its size and beauty (a token animal of peppercorn greenies).
The Moratorium remains one of the greatest environmental success stories of the last hundred years – Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society
It is not surprising then that Japan’s call to renew commercial whaling has been met by – let’s say – a bit of opposition from the outside world. But, this has only driven feelings of resentment in Japan where traditionalists believe their voices are being unfairly ignored. And, it’s starting to have an impact. Japan has made no secret of its plans to resume commercial whaling in the new year.
Onomi and Pork
Whales can be hunted sustainably. Does this statement fill you with anger? Opposition? Or, maybe, agreeance? The very idea of whaling tends to draw a visceral response from most. (This ties into the rise of whales as symbolic animals). Though, where some peoples have come to praise whales, others have not. Japan was part of this latter group. So, when news arose of a recent whaling summer by Japanese vessels that harpooned 122 pregnant whales (333 whales in total for the year or more appropriately 455), it was shocking to much of the world.
Japan wholeheartedly defended their actions: onomi is pork is beef is chicken. It’s the same old story with a new punchline. Whaling is not widely opposed because it is explicitly disastrous for the world or even the species. Otherwise, how would the pork, beef and chicken industry have persevered? Whaling is opposed because it challenges the ideas some people have been fed from birth – it hits people right where it hurts. In the ‘feels’. Where pigs, cows and chickens have largely exited this arena – more than 99.99 percent of chickens, for example, will spend their entire life in a 1x1ft cage and likely never see the light of day – whales are firmly positioned near the centre.
Although the IUCN listed the fin whale as endangered in 2008, there are no concerns about sustainability since the Icelandic quota represents 0.9% of the lowest estimate of fin whale numbers off the Icelandic coast – Professor Rachael Johnstone
Some whale populations, like the Minke Whale – listed on the IUCN as ‘least concern – can be fished sustainably and indeed the Icelandians are doing exactly this. Even the harvesting of endangered Fin Whales in Iceland could be called sustainable if it doesn’t threaten the future of the species. After all, sustainability welcomes instrumentalism with open arms.
Japan Pushes to Resume Commercial Whaling
It was by a 1986 International Whaling Commission (IWC) proclamation that commercial whaling ended. Though it was not ended for the reason most people think. There was no concern for the sustainability of whales nor the ethicality of whaling. Rather, it was to “make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry”. Essentially, whales were probably going to be extinct if nothing was done, what would become of the whaling industry then.
“Science is clear: there are certain species of whales whose population is healthy enough to be harvested sustainably” – Japanese Proposal, titled Way Forward
While there is a lot behind Japans infatuation with whale meat, the basis of their most recent push for legalisation is simple. Whaling was banned because it was unsustainable. It is no longer unsustainable, so they say. If this claim holds water it would mean there is no instrumental basis for most people’s opposition to whaling. Only a different perception. Only cultures with different values.
You may already think me a demon for sympathising with Japans perceptions of whaling. But, rest assured the leisurely cruise ends here. For the question is no longer why Japan hunts whales. Rather, is Japan capable of harvesting whales sustainably? (Spoiler… they are not).
Lessons from Iceland
Iceland – Japan’s kindred whaling partner – is one of the few nations defending whaling. Here, whale meat is somewhat of a fleeting cultural practice. (The Icelandians have hunted whales for aeons though fewer and fewer people are eating them nowadays). The few that continue this practice do so because they stand by the notion of ‘sustainable whaling’ – how much of this support is guided by their desire for the meet is beside the point. A few hundred whales a year is enough to satisfy the needs of the nation with a surplus for export to Japan. Though, there are issues.
Consumption at this level is not enough to sustain a business i.e. the industry is failing and businesses operate on a deficit. It takes a lot to run a whaling operation. Ship maintenance. Crew salaries. Processing fees. Fuel. All these operational costs and more take a serious toll. The only thing keeping the operations of Hvalur hf. – the last whaling company in Iceland – alive is government subsidies and traditionalists digging in their heels against international meddling.
Whaling may be called sustainable because demand is so little. But, it is not economically viable for this very same reason. Now, extrapolate this model from the 330,000 Icelanders relying on a few hundred whales to the 126.8 million people in Japan. There is certainly a lot more people and a bigger market. But, demand for whale meat in Japan has fallen to less than 5 percent of the population. Already supply has outpaced demand and there is an increasing stockpile.
It would be all too easy to go with the flow and let bygones be bygones. Japan seems set on the alternative: reinvigorate interest in whale meat. Prior to the ban on commercial whaling, Japan was hunting around 30,000 whales a year. It is not too hard to imagine that this meat could once-again be popular with the help of a well-funded social engineering scheme. At the same time, Japan will exit the humble backyard slaughterfest of Iceland and make its way down the path of commercialisation. Surely, you do you see the dilemma?
A Bleak Future
Whales have made their way back from the edge of extinction (It is one of the great conservation stories of our time). With Minke whales numbering close to half a million, it is easy to believe those who support ‘sustainable harvests’. But, whales have been welcomed back into an increasingly hostile world and these populations hide a troubling trend: many whales are actually in decline.
The populous Minke whales, for example, are declining. In fact, each survey following the 1986 Moratorium has estimated a lower and lower population. A trend which is especially prominent since the mid-2000’s. Right whales too and Killer Whales – technically a member of the cetacean family – have recently experienced a 30 year low. The exact cause of these declines is debated. The usual suspects, such as climate change, pollution, competition with fisheries, food shortages and other things are believed to have an influence.
You don’t have to look far to see that things are not getting better. It is quite possible that soon even the hundred or so Minke taken by the Icelandians will begin to affect the longevity of the species. For if you consider the whales as more than a means to an end, it is simple to see that the future of this species – and much of the world – is bleak if we continue our ‘survival of the convenient few’ attitude.