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Saturday, 26 September 2009

Gloomy Debate on Greedy Whaling

By Kurasawa Nanami, Iruka & Kujira (Dolphin & Whale) Action Network (IKAN)
From The Japan Observer, Vol.7 No.7 (July 2001)

Is the debate about whaling really a conflict of interests between Japan and Western countries?

DolphinEvery year when the IWC meeting comes to a close, we are bombarded with news articles about whaling in Japan. Media reports come mainly from the government controlled "industry of information," so in this season we have no choice but to deal with those one-sided or highly biased reports.

Generally the controversy on whaling is accepted as a conflict of interests between Japan and Western countries. Advocates of whaling argue that the conflict is between Japanese, who are trying to maintain (what they claim to be) a cultural tradition, and Westerners, who not only lack understanding of other cultures but also impose their cultural values on others.

On the other side, there are arguments that the Japanese are "environmental predators," behaving like a "gang of thugs," who continue environmental degradation for the sake of optimal use, and bully domestic environmental and conservation groups into "keeping silent" on the issue.

There are also arguments on whether the habit of eating whale meat is really a tradition, and about whether the government should allow or legitimize anything that be called a "tradition." However, it must be understood that the labelling of Japanese as "environmental predators," or other not-so-endearing terms, is certainly making the problem worse. There is a not miniscule percentage of Japanese who say, "the conservation of whales is going too far," or "the Western nations are imposing their cultural values on us" when faced with the high-handed attitudes of the anti-whaling advocates.

It is clear that it is the choice of the Japanese people that is crucial in solving the problem of whaling (and dolphin hunting). Due to this we have to shift the focus of discussion from "Conflicts between Japan and anti-whaling Westerners "to "Conflicts between the advocates of industrial development and exploitation, and the advocates of environmental protection." From this perspective, we need to pave the way for a fair discussion within our own country.

The Clever Substitution

Hawksbill Turtle
Recently, a documentary film entitled Underlying Motives behind the Conservation of Sea Turtles: Following the Confusion Caused by the Economic Policy of a Superpower got the 'Galaxy Award,' which is given by the Media Association of Japan. The film dealt with eco-shrimp-nets and the export of sea turtles, dealing with them in the context of the economic problems of Cuba. In other words, the film was essentially a report on "environmental protection going too far." In the film the producers argued that Southeast Asian fisherman are in a tight economic condition which is being aggravated by the compulsory introduction of a newly-developed shrimp net that keeps sea turtles from being accidentally caught. The second point made by the producers in the film regards international trade in the hawkbill turtle and US sanctions on Cuba.

From these two points, the film attempts to demonstrate that environmental protection groups are trying to take advantage of environmental problems suffered by impoverished countries and to earn money by making arguments that have "no scientific credence," and that the U.S. is seeking ways to utilize these types of situations to dominate the global economy. These special 'turtle-free nets' may have resulted in a reduction of the number of shrimp caught, and may also serve to augment the negative influence the US has had on smaller and developing nations.

However, the main problem here is whether it's possible for us to solve the north-south problem regarding the use of natural resources both commercially and in a sustainable way that respects international conservation efforts regarding endangered and threatened species. In regard to this point, the film doesn't even give us the chance to argue. During the program, the director himself appears on the screen and says "The U.S. has created CITES in order to deflect international criticism relating to its use of chemical defoliants during the Vietnam War."

When discussing the problem of whale conservation, these kinds of arguments always bubble to the surface, using the same old rhetoric: "the U.S. is on the side of anti-whaling to hide the perpetration of its own environmental crimes in Vietnam." Fundamentally, the protection of whales or other wildlife and past U.S. government policies relating to a historical conflict should be discussed as separate issues. But here these two arguments are intentionally put together. Hearing this mixing up of arguments, middle-aged and elderly Japanese who have supported the economic growth of the post-war period may feel relieved, thinking, "I'm not the one to be blamed." Instead of taking environmental problems seriously and thinking about how to cope with them, these people just feel opposed to Western nations, seeing them as people who impose their values on others. From this they draw the intended conclusion that their media has foisted upon them, and thus the purpose is achieved. No further analysis is made of the issue.

The Japanese and Whaling

The whaling industry argues that Japanese have been eating whale meat traditionally since ancient times. In trying to prove this, evidence is produced by exhibiting whale bones found in excavations dating from the Jomon period. However, the reality is that it was not until the postwar period when, due to acute food shortages, and with the permission of the Allied GHQ, Japan resumed large scale whaling activities in the Antarctic Ocean, in 1946. The whale populations were already in decline when Japan began its commercial whaling. In order to make it a viable industry, Japan purchased foreign whaling ships, which had ceased to be used for the commercial harvesting of whales when it no longer became a profitable trade for the countries who had previously indulged in it. During that lean period, whale meat was cheaper than other types of meat, and it became an important source of protein for the Japanese.

But as soon as the market for other types of meat reopened and became more viable, the demand for whale meat decreased sharply. By 1950, there was a problem of over-supply. But despite this, the whaling industry never ceased to grow, and so the surplus of whale meat was used as a source of meat for school lunch meals for children. Also the industry pushed forward with processed foods made from whale meat. One of them was fish-meat-sausages, which were mostly fish but included whale to add a "meaty" flavor. These sausages were kept from rotting by using AF2, a preservative which is no longer used because of strong suspicions that it has an adverse impact on human health and is a suspected cause of birth defects. The inclusion of this preservative enabled the meat to be transported at normal temperatures. And so these fish-meat-sausages appeared on the markets in suburbs where food circulation wasn't up to par, and where these types of markets were spreading all over Japan. Thus the great fishing industries were able to build, establish and expand bases of legitimacy and viability.

Many people from the whaling industry argue that the industry has been in decline simply because of the moratorium on whaling. But as one can see, the whaling industry itself has had to shift toward hunting smaller Minke whales due to shortages of the great-sized whales such as the Blue, Fin, Right, Humpbacks well as the Sperm whales. In truth, the whaling industry has been in crisis because of the overexploitation or rampant decimation of the great whales.

Long Beaked Dolphins

Arguments of the Japanese Government and the Whaling Industry

The reasons behind Japan's extremely strong insistence on whaling are somewhat ambiguous. One reason may be that whaling has become a fortress for deep-sea fisheries in general, and there is an inherent fear that if Japan were to comply with international anti-whaling pressure, the entire edifice of its fishing industry would collapse. The logic behind this thinking is that the Japanese fishing industry would suffer from a kind of "domino effect," where the next target would be to curtail the commercial fishing of tuna, itself a highly lucrative trade.

In terms of the economics whaling itself, however, there seem to be more disadvantages than advantages for Japan. Until recently the industry has asserted, in an effort to legitimize itself, that whaling and the so-called cultural habit of eating whales have become a Japanese tradition. This is a highly questionable assertion given the fact that there is a decreasing demand for whale meat on the domestic market, owing to high prices, and that whale meat consumption is widely viewed as unacceptable.

In spite of this, though, there have been systematic campaigns, where the editors of major newspapers and even scientific "experts" assert what they call "liberal" views by exhorting Japan not to "yield to foreign pressures." These words appeal to citizens' feelings, dispelling any reservations they may have about whaling.

Ironically, in the background of this movement one finds two interesting factual point. One is that the whaling industry has become something that has nothing to do with everyday life for the vast majority of Japanese, so most people don't have a direct interest in whaling. The other is that this movement for whaling has awakened subconscious envy and antipathy toward Western nations, and especially the U.S. Some of the confusion is being deliberately foisted upon the Japanese people by their government and industries. If whaling is done as a traditional practice, it should be done in the coastal areas. But proponents actually insist on whaling in international waters. At the IWC meeting in 1996, it was Japan that immediately opposed the proposal made by Ireland which stated "with the exception of coastal area whaling, high-seas area whaling should gradually be abolished." If Japan wants to insist that whaling and eating whale meat is traditional, it should have been easy to comply with the Irish proposal.

Another argument put forth by the Japanese government and the industry is that the "extinction of whales is an exaggeration of the anti-whaling environmental groups; actually the numbers of whales are increasing. In particular, the Minke whales are growing like cockroaches, and they are overwhelming the Blue whales by snatching what they eat." And actually most Japanese who don't have special interests in the whale issue believe them and say, "If the whales are proliferating too rapidly, why shouldn't we capture them?"

This argument has expanded to the level of saying,"Whales, which have become too numerous, will destroy the marine eco-system." This may appear as ludicrous to anyone with even a marginal knowledge of marine ecosystems, but this view has been adopted by the Japanese media and is accepted as both a plausible argument and a serious justification for the harvesting of whales on a commercial basis. Many people have taken to heart the argument which states that "As whales eat five to six times as much as human beings, soon we'll be out of sardines and sauries." (this point of view may provide a hint regarding the standards of the Japanese school education system). Similar arguments are applied in Canada in order to justify commercial sealing. Hence Japan is not alone in employing such tactics, which are obviously intended for propaganda purposes.

In truth, Japanese are using ocean-resources far more extensively than other countries, but whether a lot is consumed or not depends on the species. Popular consumption fish, such as tuna, bonito and salmon that are sold in the markets, are actually mostly imported. Sardines, by contrast, are mostly used as oil, fertilizer and fodder. But even here, most of the sardine haul is now imported. In addition, the sardine haul has always shown a tendency to fluctuate, so it is not easy to specify what is behind the changes in yields. Thinning out whales might help some fishermen, but won't restore the damage that indiscriminate fishing has caused.

There are many other arguments from Japan, such as "It is not fair that the number of anti-whaling countries are overwhelming in the IWC in spite of the fact that the organization is a whaling commission", or "As scientific whaling is permitted in the whaling treaty, it is illegal to oppose it", "The economic sanctions of the U.S. amount to racial discrimination", "The U.S. is destroying the forests itself via McDonalds," and "Capturing whales is better for the environment." These arguments all stray from the main point. They are arguing from premises that it is a natural right of the Japanese to capture whales.

But finally there are discussions from many viewpoints on whaling problems in Japan these days.

Serious Contamination of Whales: The Impact of High Levels of Poisonous Chemical Substances on Whales

In autumn 1999, a report was submitted by scientists from Japan, England, and the U.S. at the 'Environmental Toxicology Symposium' about the high levels of PCB and mercury contained in marketed whale meat. At the same time, the scientists demanded that the Ministry of Health and Welfare and other ministries warn the public of the possibility that eating whale meat may be dangerous to one's health. The data from the report was obtained by randomly buying meat, blubber, processed and canned whale meat from six supermarkets, department stores, and fish markets in six prefectures, and examining their DNA. Of the 130 specimens, the 116 that were identifiable by DNA analysis were tested for levels of heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium, and organic compound substances such as PCB and DDT. Sixty-one of the 116 contained above the standard level of contamination. In Japan, local fishermen catch more than 20,000 dolphin according to an annual quota established by the National Fisheries Agency. The dolphin meat is usually sold as whale meat.

Following the moratorium, the price of whale meat jumped upward, prompting local fishermen to hunt dolphins to sell as "whale meat." The high level of contamination was seen especially in toothed whales such as dolphins, which in one case contained over 1,000 times the standard. The PCB levels were also above the standards in the meat of whales from not only coastal waters but all bodies of water. The contamination of coastal toothed whales was especially heavy; when consuming coastal toothed whale meat, 1 gram (average) is enough to exceed the approved amount.

On receiving this information, a consumers group named Safety First was started in order to inform the government and civilians in areas where whale meat is consumed, as well as the whaling industry itself, of the danger of whale meat consumption. This resulted in a temporary decrease in the distribution of whale meat. The government was unwilling to cooperate, stating that whale meat is not a commonly consumed food in Japan. In an interview in the Mainichi Shinbun, an official at the fisheries department stated that the average consumption amount of the Japanese per year is less than 1 gram. This contradicts former government comment. Even if the Japanese consumption level is low, it does not eliminate the fact that whale meat is indeed circulated, and in certain areas, is consumed regularly. Also the danger is especially strong to women who are either pregnant or might become pregnant in the future. The government of Denmark has warned of the dangers of mercury on fetal brains, saying that the danger is more serious than it was previously believed to be. It is extremely important that information and warnings be released as soon as possible. Also, we need to consider the dangers of chemical contamination on the whales themselves. However, the whaling industry claims that the contamination issue is a fake story made up by anti-whaling groups.

Future of the Whaling Issue

We cannot gauge if the number of whales is really increasing, but in any case it is quite difficult to cope with questions such as, "Why don't you let even a small number be captured?" or "Show scientific data for your anti-whaling arguments". Those who express opinions in favor of whaling try to protect their vested rights and it is tough work to get them to change their minds. Japanese people tend to cling to the idea that "natural resources belongs to nobody in the first place so it's "first come first served." Under this logic they make no distinction between territorial waters and the high seas. The comment of secretary Komatsu in the last IWC meeting succinctly summarizes both the attitude and mentality of official policy in Japan. "In the end, they all die whether we capture them or not, so isn't it a waste not to hunt them? They all become trash of the sea if we waste them (with waste meaning not killing them for use as resources)."

We have to make these people understand the idea that the high sea s are not an area just for the whalers but that it belongs to the whole world. Also, we must let them know that we will not accept arguments such as keeping down the number of whales (which are an important part of the overall marine ecology) by human hands for in the name of "protection of the eco-system." These types of attitudes have always threatened the global environment. Even if Japan claims that it will only capture a small number of whales for commercial purposes, allowing the possibility of reopening the whale meat market internationally would invite an expansion of illegal capturing and marketing. Even now when there are only limited markets, many cases of illegal whaling and circulation of such products are being reported. We have to understand that we Japanese are largely responsible for all this.

Given the nationalistic pride of middle-aged and elderly people, I think the best way of changing their attitudes is to shift ideas within ourselves and withdraw from whaling using our own efforts, rather than giving way to the pressure of foreign countries. Luckily, many young people love to swim with the wild dolphins and go whale watching these days. This young generation who have never eaten whale meat, likely have the same sensitivities as those of the foreign countries who oppose whaling. I wish these young people could get involved in the whale issue more aggressively, and protest against high seas area whaling. And I hope they succeed in making the captivity and commercial exploitation of whales and dolphins shrink and vanish in the future.

This article was edited by Craig Gibson and John McLaughlin.

For more information on IKAN:

Kiyo bldg. 205 2-5-5 Hyakunin-cho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, Japan
phone & fax: +81-3-3366-8122 Email: <dead link>


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