Canned whale meat display, Tokyo. Photo by Flickr user JD.
Beginning in mid-2019, Japan will drop the charade that its whaling operations are conducted in the interest of science, and will join Norway and Iceland as the only nations that openly hunt whales for profit.
My immediate reaction to Japan’s decision to withdraw from the International Whaling Commission, which I expect most of the rest of the world will share, is one of revulsion, although not surprise. But before condemning the Japanese and their Nordic whaling allies for engaging in commercial whaling, I paused to ask myself what distinguishes whaling from raising livestock, or hunting game on land, or commercial fishing, none of which I find objectionable.
My answer is that whaling is both unnecessary and parasitic. It represents the wanton destruction of one of nature’s crowning achievements. Whales, like dolphins and other cetaceans, are highly intelligent and sensitive creatures (an objection also underpinning movements to stop holding cetaceans in parks and zoos). Killing and eating whales ought to rank with killing and eating gorillas and elephants on a hierarchy of behaviors that are beneath the dignity of humans in any situation when survival is not at stake. To many of us, that is exactly how it ranks in reality as well as in theory.
I am far from a vegetarian. Domesticated livestock species would not exist in anything like their modern numbers if humans did not breed and sustain them for our own purposes. Many people (although not me in most cases) object to terrestrial game hunting, but the practice also provides the money and justification for wildlife management that enables many species to thrive despite the ever-expanding footprint of Homo sapiens. It’s a fair trade, in my eyes – the sacrifice of individuals for the overall maintenance of the species. We humans are part of the balance of nature, after all.
Even commercial fishing and fishery management, imperfect as they may be, provide for the orderly protection of many species that would otherwise be threatened by humanity’s appetite for cheap protein and by other human-caused threats. Most fish species reproduce readily and massively, responding to the fact that only a small fraction of their offspring will survive to reproductive age. Evolution has equipped most fish for a place somewhere in the middle of the food chain.
Whales are vastly different. They are mammals. They grow to enormous size very slowly. They reproduce infrequently and in small numbers. They invest great biological resources in the protection of their young. They generally operate in close-knit, mutually dependent social groups. The most plentiful whales still represent, as best we know, comparatively tiny populations spread far across the seas. The taking of even a single whale represents a significant loss. Whales continually face many collateral stresses at the hands of man, too, from entanglement in fishing gear to ship strikes to noise pollution.
And whale hunting is unnecessary as a practical matter. We have not needed them for oil for over a century. We certainly do not need them as a source of meat. Hunting them is hardly economical when we can get substitute products from other sources. The justification for whale hunting, whether commercially or in still-permitted indigenous activity, is primarily cultural. Certain people kill whales because their people have always killed whales, as far back as they can remember. Japan directly cited the cultural importance of eating whale meat to its people in its decision to resume commercial whale hunting.
This reason isn’t good enough.
Put it this way: If a practice is so far beyond international norms that China, Russia and even North Korea no longer engage in it, how does it reflect on the societies of Japan, Norway and Iceland?
Whaling is a parasitic activity because mankind sets aside no territory, provides no sustenance and offers no shelter to cetaceans, as it does for domestic livestock. Whales are migratory species. Japan’s claim that it will hunt whales only in its own territorial waters, meaning the country’s internationally recognized 200-mile exclusive economic zone, has no credibility. The Japanese lack incentive and everyone else lacks jurisdiction to enforce the rule against its fleet. The claim also lacks intellectual honesty, because a whale that is inside the zone this month could be hundreds or thousands of miles away in a few months’ time. Japan isn’t taking its own whales; it is taking everyone’s whales. The same is true for the other miscreant whale hunters.
And one more point worth considering in Washington, D.C. as well as in Tokyo: In the face of China’s rapidly expanding military force, Japan’s claim to the disputed Senkaku Islands (known as Diaoyu Islands in China) relies heavily on international diplomatic support, as well as military backup from America. In turn, control over those islands expands the ocean territory that Japan claims as part of its exclusive economic zone, in which commercial whaling is soon to be permitted. It will be ironic if Japan’s whaling practice means it cedes the moral high ground on marine conservation to China, whose factory fishing fleets flout local and international law in waters around the globe. It will also be strategically counterproductive for the Japanese.
It probably isn’t a coincidence that all of the defiant whaling countries are democracies. Domestic politics, and specifically the perceived defense of local culture and traditions, is clearly what drove them toward policies to which so many of their customary allies strongly object. I get it; these countries have as much right to defend their perceived national interests as anybody else does. But that makes no difference to the whales, who do not know whose waters or ships to avoid.
Norway, Iceland and Japan will hunt whales until the rest of humanity imposes costs upon them that outweigh the benefits they think they get from a practice most of us have come to abhor. If you want to make them pay, think about the whales when you buy your next car or plan your next vacation.