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The Great Asia-Pacific Whale Debate [ 2005.12.05 ]

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- ภฯ...
In this columnist’s first article for newsjapan.co.kr the current state of diplomatic relations between Australia and Japan were discussed, which by all accounts are at an all time high. The one thorn that I neglected to mention centered on the industry of whaling. If Australians know nothing else about Japan the one thing you can be sure of is their awareness of Japan’s insistent harvesting of whale species from the World’s oceans. Hardly an issue that could spiral into war between the two nations, but one that nevertheless leads to heated debates both around the dinner tables and the federal parliament of Australia. On a social level there would be little else to divide the two nations as severely as whaling does, and it is a debate that is not about to be resolved anytime soon. The Japanese love eating the flesh of the world’s largest animal, and Australians are adamant that hardly a greater environmental travesty could occur on planet Earth. It has to be said that issues of deforestation, fresh water supply, and global warming are all far more pressing than the discussion of whether or not a particular sea creature deserves to be culled, but Australians just cannot bear to see a whale slaughtered. How times change, since it was only 27 years ago that Australia’s last commercial whaling factory shut its doors for good. Curiously the nation has gone from one of pro-whaling to one of whale conservation in such a relatively short period of time, but how could this be? One has to assume that the public of Australia, who after all rarely consumed whale meat if at all, discovered a love for these fairly magnificent animals that grace the global waters. The love Japan has on the other hand comes not from watching these spectacular animals glide through the sea, but rather seeing them served up on a dinner plate. So what drives Japan’s passion and Australia’s disdain for the culling of whales?

The first may be an easier proposition to grasp. For an island nation covered almost entirely in steep, mountainous terrain it seems obvious to turn to the ocean as a supplier of nutrition, and that is exactly what the Japanese have done for centuries. The average citizen of planet Earth eats his or her way through 16 kilograms of fish per year compared with the Japanese who more than quadruple that figure to an amazing 69 kilos per person per year. This equates to somewhere around 6.7 million tons of seafood being extracted from Mother Nature’s waters annually by the fishing men and women of Japan. Surely then to make life easier one would rather catch bigger species of edible marine life than mess around with finding lots of little ones, and what could be bigger than a whale? In fact nothing on planet Earth can supersede these creatures for size and so if you wanted to feed a lot of people quickly it makes perfect sense to target such an animal. What else is Japan to do in order to find quality protein for its collective stomach? Its hand is forced to hunt whale surely, since there is simply not enough pastoral land to support the kind of beef industry Japan would otherwise have. It’s all well and good to have your Kobe beef beer-fed and hand massaged, but that industry cannot possibly sustain the masses. On the surface at least it looks like Japan is perfectly justified to seek and obtain whales as a food source. But is their capture genuine, or are we discussing more a want than a need, in other words a delicacy? One of the messages the pro-whaling lobbyists of Japan send out time and again is that this is an old custom, practiced for centuries, and that no one else should interfere in that which they don’t understand. Quite simply the Japanese have a right to consume whale meat, end of story. This is a sound justification though there’s just one problem. Humans have collectively hunted most if not all whale species to the point of extinction. In what is an all too typically sad tale the continuing industrial revolution of the world has meant that whales, along with countless other species, have been targeted unsustainably for the last two or three hundred years. From the flagship species, the mighty blue whale, to the smallest pygmy species, whales have for the most part been slaughtered in such high numbers that even humans could not ignore the rapid decline. Hence in 1946 countries got together to form the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in order to at least make an attempt to monitor whale stocks for the future of the whaling industry, if not so much for the future of the species themselves. Overtime however many of these nations have come to the realization that hunting the whale is no longer necessary, just a bygone industry from yesterday’s era of society. America, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and even Russia have all ceased commercial whaling, no longer having a need for blubber as fuel oil, spermaceti for candles, or whale meat for consumption. The current debate about whaling really hinges on not whether Japan culls whales but rather are whale species’ populations suitably high enough ecologically speaking for each individual species to survive indefinitely into the future. Japan may say yes for the most part but Australia will preach otherwise, and here’s why.

Australia, despite its size, is really just another island. The bulk of its inhabitants reside on the coastline and have built up over the centuries an enormous rapport with the beaches and seas which encompass the land. Sure, Australians love to eat seafood, but they also love to swim, surf, dive, and play in their oceans. From the Great Barrier Reef in the north to the kelp forests off Tasmania almost every Australian could tell you something they love and respect about their nation’s marine life. Whilst dolphins give them a fair old run it is the Humpback and Southern Wright Whales that really catch Aussies’ hearts and imaginations. Anyone who’s had the pleasure of seeing these creatures up close can only be in complete awe of how truly a magnificent creature they are and the absolute last thing on their mind would be to spear them through the heart with a harpoon. Out of some compassionate respect for nature the modern Australian citizen simply cherishes the idea of a female humpback and her calf swimming up the Australian coastline to feed and frolic in the warmer waters of the tropics. Tourists love it too it seems, in fact the Australian whale watching tourism industry is worth about 270 million dollars to the national economy every single year. It is no wonder then that the last thing the Australian people and their government would want is depletion of an already delicate whale population. Unfortunately it seems that Japan is determined to make this occur having taken and estimated 400 whales from Australia’s own national waters since 1999. That one nation can so brazenly steal from right under the noses of another is tantamount to an act of war yet it seems ridiculous to get diplomatically aggressive on the behalf of an animal. Besides, in international waters where Japan ultimately collects most of its quarry, who is to say what one nation can and can not do? If there’s a whaling boat and a whale and the two happen to interact then how is it anyone else’s business? But perhaps if Japan played the honesty card it would win a few more friends.

The most insulting aspect of Japan’s membership of the IWC is their insistence that they are catching and killing whales for scientific research. This simple ruse is maintained simply because the IWC banned commercial whaling by all members in 1986, allowing only for the provision of capturing whales in small numbers for marine science research. Probably wishing to save face the Japanese stayed loyal to the IWC by retaining their membership, but almost immediately resumed capturing whales under this new guise. The frustrating aspect from an outsider’s viewpoint is that even to this day the Japanese government insists it is merely conducting scientific research into the cetacean family, not stocking Tokyo’s world famous Tsukiji fish market with whale meat. It remains unclear to the rest of the world as to what type of scientific research involves the capture of 935 Minke, 100 Sei, 50 Fin, Bryde’s, and Humpback, and 10 Sperm whales a year, just to name a few of their collected species. At least if the government of Japan had the decency to admit the real purpose for culling whales then some members of the IWC may feel slightly less insulted by Japan’s attitude towards the resumption of commercial whaling, leading to more effective and open dialogue on the subject. As it stands Japan (and to a lesser extent Norway) and the majority remainder of the IWC, led most vociferously by Australia, sit at loggerheads over the question of whether whales, those mighty impressive creatures from the deep blue sea, deserve to be left alone, or left on a dinner plate. Since there’s no world police and certainly no world court to cry foul to, the long-term future of these animals does indeed hang in the balance. One can only hope that the precautionary principle and the theories of sustainability can lead to whales continued existence on planet Earth.

Bernard Laidlaw



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