Why Japan Can't Stop Killing Whales

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 3/16/2010 12:23:00 AM
Whale huggers have long been indignant over Japan's whaling activities in "scientific" interests. This interesting TIME article, however, notes that, first of all, whale sashimi is not even that popular with Japanese modern diners:
Indeed, even in Japan, whale meat isn't that popular. Though some coastal towns have hunted whale for centuries, relatively few Japanese ate whale regularly before the postwar years, which is when it took off. What changed? Blame U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, head of the U.S. occupation of Japan, who thought whale meat would be a cheap source of protein for an impoverished country and effectively launched the modern Japanese whaling industry. A generation of Japanese schoolchildren grew up accustomed to having whale in their lunch boxes.

But it's been decades since Japan could be described as impoverished, and a 2008 survey found that 95% of Japanese either eat whale meat very rarely or not at all. The fishing company that owns Japan's whaling ships estimated that annual per capita consumption from its catch might amount to less than four slices of sashimi a year. If Japanese whaling — which is allowed under the international ban only on a very small scale, as "scientific research" — ended tomorrow, your average salaryman in Osaka would barely notice.
The real reason why Japan puts up with all the international pressure to stop this unpopular activity is tied to fishing a far more important haul to Japanese palates--bluefin tuna--which is also in the to-do list of conservationists:
In part, the Japanese may be protecting their right to whale as a stand-in for a separate issue they actually care about: fishing for bluefin tuna, which is popular in sushi. The Japanese eat an estimated 80% of the world's catch of the species, which many scientists believe is in danger of being fished out of existence. If Japan holds the line on whaling, the argument goes, it would send a signal that limits on bluefin tuna aren't up for debate either.

We'll see if that message gets through. At the meeting of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species, beginning on March 13 in Doha, the E.U. and U.S. will push for a ban on international trade of the bluefin. Japan has already said it would oppose the ban, but Tokyo faces an uphill battle. "A ban is the only possibility to prevent a total collapse of this species," says Sergei Tudela, Atlantic bluefin tuna expert for the World Wildlife Fund.
There's also Japan trying to distance itself from the usual accusations of American lackeyism:
But there is more than just fish politics and food culture at stake for Japan when it comes to whaling. Even though few Japanese ever sit down to a plate of whale sashimi, they still resist viscerally the idea that the international community could force Japan to stop whaling. A country that arguably never returned to full sovereignty after World War II — its constitution greatly limits its military, and U.S. armed forces are still based throughout Japan — can get tired of the world telling it what to do. As a Japanese chef told me at that whale festival in 2005, "If other people don't want to eat whale, that's fine. But we should be allowed to do what we want." A side of national pride makes a blubbery dinner go down a lot easier.
At any rate, American and European calls to ban bluefin tuna fishing are gaining in volume. Can Japan really say no? It will be interesting to watch when they actually stand up to the Washington bully boys who've lorded it over them for so long:
There has been protest in Japan over a proposed ban on international trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna, a day after the European Union agreed to back the plan. Wholesalers held a protest at Tokyo's fish market, while a top official said Japan was likely to opt out of any ban. The EU agreed on Wednesday to back the proposal during next week's meeting of the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

But Japanese opponents say it would hit the country's massive tuna market hard. Bluefin tuna, which is used in sushi and sashimi, is highly prized in Japan. But a recent scientific assessment concluded that stocks have declined by 80% in the past 40 years. Nations will consider whether to suspend fishing - until stocks recover - at the Cites meeting opening this weekend in Qatar...

Japan consumes about three-quarters of the bluefin tuna caught worldwide, and imports large amounts from France, Italy and Spain. Countries accepting a Cites suspension would not be allowed to export bluefin caught in their waters, and would not be able to fish in international waters. The EU is backing exemptions for traditional fishers and deferring the ban for a year. The US prefers an immediate suspension of fishing. Japan is not opposed to bluefin conservation, but believes such matters should be regulated by regional fisheries bodies such as the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (Iccat).
The BBC has more on the plight of the bluefin tuna from yet another celebrity activist...Ted Danson. Sushi or sashimi, anyone? What's worse for the environment, whale meat or a Double Whopper?