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Whaling: Tradition and Conservation vs. Fear and Hype

You may have heard about a reality TV series called “Whale Wars” and currently airing on Animal Planet in North America. The series documents Sea Shepherd Society activists pursuing the whaling vessel Nisshin Maru around the Antarctic, attempting to forcibly stop it from harpooning whales last year.

Since hearing of the series premier in November, I’ve become fearful of the repercussions of the heightening tensions in the southern ocean. Instead of another reality show, perhaps a reality check is what’s needed for everyone, no matter on which side of the whaling argument we fall.

Since the fallout in the International Whaling Commission (IWC) took the spotlight, most every non-Japanese person with whom I’ve talked on the topic has immediately stated a dislike of whaling, while almost every Japanese person I’ve spoken to has passionately stated support for it. The uniformity of peoples’ responses makes me suspicious of whether most of us have actually thought the issue through.

In fact, my first reaction was, “Oh, it’s terrible to kill cetaceans.” However I then considered I probably felt that way because I was brought up in a society that had decided for me that whaling is no good.

Having spent many hours swimming with dolphins, I am aware of their intelligence and would certainly not like to see any killed, but I have never depended on these animals to stay alive. If I had ever endured hunger on the scale many Japanese are old enough to remember, I might not think whaling is such a bad thing.

Additionally, many, if not most, of us who put ourselves in the anti-whaling camp readily eat beef, pork and, in some cases, game animals that are also fairly intelligent. Are we not being hypocritical?

The pro-whaling camp asserts Japan has a right to hunt cetaceans based on its whale-eating heritage, and the issue has become more volatile with Japan’s claim it is being singled out due to racism. To back up this assertion, Japan points to Norway, which the IWC permits to hunt whales for commercial purposes, so long as the meat and byproducts are sold domestically.

This is in fact the case, but to say it’s a matter of racism is to overlook major differences between these countries. Chiefly, Norway’s population is 4.6 million – about a million more than the number of people who pass through Shinjuku Station every day. Compare that with Japan’s 127.7 million people, and a different issue emerges.

The real and potentially explosive issue is not Japan’s right to hunt whales, but its necessity to look beyond its shores to feed its population. When Japanese say they support whaling, it’s not because they wish to indulge in whale, but because they feel that if the country loses this battle, it will set a precedent by which Japan can be prohibited from catching and importing pelagic fish, which is of far more importance in the Japanese diet. The logic is, if whale goes, tuna could be next.

While I personally empathize with Japanese citizens who feel strongly about the issue, I also believe the international community’s uneasiness about Japan as a fishing nation is not without cause. 

As an avid sport angler in Japan, I’ve seen an alarming number of the country’s fisheries are in deplorable shape. My Japanese fishing friends and numerous guides with whom I’ve spoken agree. A few have pointed to there not being bag or size limits, or a catch-and-release custom for undersized fish.

More point to commercial fisheries management largely being left to private cooperatives, which fits with Japan’s custom since feudal times, but leaves the oceans in the hands of individuals who can, and often do, put profit ahead of conservation. One could argue that is like leaving the fox in charge of the chicken coop. 

Some may believe that, given the size of Japan’s population, the country’s fishing culture should not be criticized, but the fact is a large number of observers around the world have long had the impression that Japan is highly irresponsible when it comes to marine conservation. It’s this negative image that ought to have been openly addressed before Japan began wrangling for IWC votes and emphasizing the Nisshin Maru hunts whales in the name of science. 

At the same time, those in the anti-whaling camp would do well to put themselves in the position of Japanese people. First, those who cheer on the Sea Shepherd Society or call the dolphin hunters in Taiji “barbarians,” can think about how the world would respond if a group of Japanese showed up in Cairns or Southern California and hurled bottles of butyric acid at local fishermen.

Consider whether whaling is any crueler than slaughtering cattle and if it can’t be done in a sustainable fashion. 

Folks on both sides of the whaling issue are being caught up in a lot of hype, sensationalism and factionalism instead of coming up with a sensible solution to the problem. There is a need for serious self-examination on both sides’ motivation and what’s really at stake.

We also have to be willing to show our colors and admit our shortcomings. I sincerely hope an independent third party can mediate soon, because like so many other environmental issues, whaling is a ticking time bomb likely to explode before we know it.

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