Environment | OUR PLANET EARTH

Crafting public opinion to fit fisheries policy

Kind and gentle reader, I have a confession to make that may shock you. It is necessary to tell you this because, unlike many politicians and bureaucrats, I believe truth and transparency are essential. So here it is: I have eaten whale.

“How could he!” you may be wailing in dismay, and I quite understand. For many, eating whale verges on heresy, and here is an environmental columnist, from North America no less, noshing on a marine mammal. But I do have an excuse, of sorts: I was tricked.

It was my first visit to Japan, and I was traveling through Kansai. An American friend introduced me to some travel agents in Osaka who whisked me off for a tour of the city. They were delighted to have a foreign innocent under their wing, and with burgeoning bonhomie we wandered from bar to bar and shop to shop, drinking sake and eating.

Late in the evening, after much food, drink and merriment, a plate was placed before me. “What’s this?” I asked, staring at the small, dark, dense slab of meat. “Just try it,” they said. So I did. I was not going to let this band of professional travelers label me a parochial tourist, so I took a bite. Hoots of laughter erupted from my hosts and only then did they tell me, with great glee, that it was whale.

Had I been a better guest I would have feigned outrage. But I did not gag, choke, nor pound the table in disgust. The sake, of course, helped drown any indignation I might have felt, and my liberal-arts education — specifically Anthropology 100 and “cultural relativity” — ensured we remained friends for years after.

To my amazement, the gods did not strike me down for my transgression, though I have wondered at times whether the spectacular burst of Japan’s “bubble,” and the subsequent decade-long recession, is Poseidon’s divine punishment. In fact, the only thing that did strike me was how surprisingly unappetizing the whale meat was. Chewy, not much taste, very much like the “mystery meat” we were served in grade school.

The second and last time I tried whale (by choice I admit) was to see if my first experience had been a fluke, so to speak. I could not fathom why the Japanese government remained insistent on promoting whaling when so few people ate whale meat and most everyone I spoke with associated it with post-war school lunches. So I tried it once again, this time at a “good” restaurant. Once again I was disappointed.

With so many other subtle and pungent Japanese delicacies to choose from, the government clamor promoting whale-meat consumption rings hollow and disingenuous.

These experiences of mine took place more than a decade ago, when Japan’s primary argument in favor of commercial whaling was that whale meat was an important part of the nation’s traditional diet. Since then, the government has diversified its stance and begun touting a wider array of pro-whaling arguments. The most popular of these are that whales are eating all our fish (Japan consumes more marine resources per capita than any nation in the world) and, most recently, that there are now so many whales we need to cull them for their own benefit. Hence the slogan of this year’s eat-whale campaign: “Save them, Eat them.”

Incredible claims, many argue. Already fishers have depleted all of the world’s fisheries and we are eating lower and wider on the marine food chain than ever before. If marine ecosystems are not allowed to replenish, it is conceivable that someday more fishers will be chasing down whales. Not to eat, though, but to harvest the contents of their stomachs, since the only fish remaining will be too small for us to pursue with fleets of high-tech trawlers and long lines.

Fortunately that day has not yet arrived. In the meantime, however, Japan remains determined to convince the world that whaling is an essential part of its modern culture. Since many nations already accept this notion, the primary obstacle remaining is for the government to convince the Japanese people that they want whaling. Because the truth is, the vast majority couldn’t care less about eating whale meat.

This lack of interest on the part of the Japanese public is a complicating factor, to say the least, and it has forced Japan’s Fisheries Agency to take on the ignominious role of cheerleader in an effort to pump up support for whaling. In March for example, the agency announced the results of a public-opinion survey completed last December. The media release was wishfully titled: “Strong Support for Whaling.”

According to the agency, the survey “showed more than 75 percent support for whaling managed in a rational and sustainable way.” This claim appears to be based on one of the survey questions that asked, “Do you agree with the idea that countries should be allowed to catch a certain number of whales . . . if the whale resource is managed on scientific basis and negative influence on the resource is avoided?” To this question, 45.7 percent of those polled chose the response “strongly agree,” while 29.7 percent chose “moderately agree.”

Sounds convincing, but is it? The question simply asks people if they agree with an idea, rather than whether they support whaling. Using these results to claim that three-quarters of Japanese people support whaling lacks candor.

It is worth comparing the agency’s results with those of Market & Opinion Research International (MORI), an independent British research agency that conducted a survey here in 1999, commissioned by Greenpeace and the International Fund for Animal Welfare. The MORI survey concluded that only 2 percent “strongly support” whaling, 8 percent “tend to support” it, and 39 percent “neither support or oppose” it. MORI also found that 3 percent “strongly oppose” whaling, and 11 percent “tend to oppose” it, and 13 percent “don’t know” or have “no opinion.”

In a further effort to bolster the appearance of a pro-whaling consensus, the Fisheries Agency press release also notes: “More than 87 percent of respondents said that they had eaten whale meat.” The agency, however, reveals its hand in the very next paragraph. “These results,” says the release, “show a continuing high level of public support for the government’s position on whaling and strengthens our resolve to work within the International Whaling Commission for the resumption of commercial whaling” (italics added).

The truth is, the government wants whaling. The public would prefer to visit an aquarium or a marine park and watch live dolphins and orcas.

As so often happens in Japan, the bureaucrats have formulated policy, and now they must garner some semblance of public support or acquiescence. The fact that they attempt to equate having “eaten whale meat” with “support” for commercial whaling is a testament to the difficulty of their task — and the yawning gap between the opinions of the Fisheries Agency and the people.

This equation also means that bureaucrats would count me among whaling supporters. After all, I, like most Japanese, have eaten whale meat.

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