The pro-whaling position anguishes those nations that resent Japan’s apparent cruelty.
But believe it or not — like it or not — Japan’s case for the resumption of commercial whaling is strong enough to have IWC nations reconsidering their positions. Change is unlikely to occur this year, due to the two-thirds majority required to effect it, but it’s on the horizon.
According to the whaling convention (ICRW), Japan’s catches are legal, and technically, as no profit is made from the sale of whale meat, not commercial — check Article VIII. But is it just a loophole ripe for exploitation?
The driving force behind the 1982 whaling moratorium was that data on whales like age and reproductive rates was difficult to gather. “The research catch by Japan was launched to answer such questions,” says The Japan Whaling Association.
To determine how fast a specific population grows, its sexual maturity, rate of reproduction and life span among other things, must be tested.
For example, from an Antarctic population of minke whales asserted by the IWC to be at 760,000 in 1990, (from an estimated 80,000 a century ago) 440 (0.25 percent) “is the smallest number required to obtain statistically valid results,” according to the Institute of Cetacean Research.
Contrary to the stance of countries like Australia, the IWC acknowledges that information pertaining to age and reproduction cannot be determined without lethal catches to, for example, analyze ovaries.
Why should whales be exempt as a commodity? There are over a billion people out there who hold a four-legged animal sacred and Westerners continue to chow down on Big Macs. If you’re prepared to eat beef, why not whale?
One reason why whaling hits the heart of the West is that during the ’70s and ’80s, whales became a symbol of the environment’s vulnerability. Think friendship, Flipper, Free Willy.
In Japan too they occupy an important place in the country’s psyche. Masayuki Komatsu, alternate commissioner for Japan at the IWC, writes about Japan’s whale culture. At Koganji temple in Yamaguchi Prefecture, the souls of over 1,000 whales are interred, along with 75 whale fetuses on the top of a hill, where he says, they can “command a view of their ocean home.” He goes on to point out, “An approach where the Japanese accord the whale (the) status of a person because of its integral role in sustaining human life can clearly be contrasted with the view of cattle in the West, where no such status or respect is conferred.”
Although Japanese consumed whale as early as 3500 B.C., it didn’t reach the plates of commoners until the Edo period.
In 1947, whale constituted about 47 percent of Japan’s protein, according to the ICR. Whale meat had proved a solution to a country in dire food shortage. This has left a strong impression on Japanese.
While we’re on the West and whale culture, let’s note that in the group of countries that decimated the populations of blue, right and bowhead whales in their search for oil (remember Moby Dick?), England and America were present while Japan was not.
As the ’70s hit with the glory of petrol, the importance of whaling for those economies waned.
Last year 49 percent of Australia’s exported beef was to Japan to the tune of 2 billion Australian dollars. Economically, exporters aren’t interested in a resumption of whaling.
Moreover, the destruction wrought by cattle farming on the environment ought not to be underestimated. In a report released last week, the United Nations FAO estimated that South America’s forest will decrease by 18 million hectares by 2010.
“Growing demand for animal protein is one of the driving forces . . . It is urgent that alternatives are found.”
When one beef cow supplies 0.3 tons of meat, and a minke whale yield equals 12 cattle, potential environmental benefits become clear.
There are health issues too.
Whale meat is high in protein and iron and low in cholesterol. Baleen whales like minkes feed on krill, and Antarctic krill are devoid of toxins like mercury, unlike fish caught near cities, and not pumped full of hormones, as are cattle and chicken. When the world’s forests are being depleted, and half its population doesn’t have enough food, it seems indulgent for wealthy nations to call whales off limits because whaling “is no longer required to meet human needs.”