The Institute of Cetacean Research, a quasi-public body that coordinates Japan’s controversial whale hunting activities, is reporting that about 75 percent of the more than1,000 tons of meat from whales harvested as part of the country’s (alleged) deep-sea “research mission” was passed over by buyers, despite repeated attempts to sell it off, according to news reports.
The institute sponsored several wholesale auctions over the last six months to try to sell frozen meat from whales hunted in the northern Pacific Ocean last summer. The auctions were intended to promote domestic consumption of whale meat and raise revenue for the organization’s, um, “marine research” program.
A spokesman for the institute blamed the “disappointing” auction results on commercial buyers wishing to avoid trouble with anti-whaling activists. “We have to think about new ways to market whale meat,” he told the Australian news service News.com.au.
Thank you, Captain Obvious.
The truth is that the worldwide anti-whaling movement has affected much of the Japanese population—especially younger people—turning them off to eating what had been a traditional food for centuries in that country. News coverage of anti-whaling protests staged by Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd and other environmental groups that paint Japan’s so-called research activities as nothing more than a cover for commercial whaling that they say threatens the survival of the marine mammals.
Japanese officials, however, argue that the research is necessary to support its position that, in fact, there is a robust, healthy whale population worldwide that could be harvested under controlled conditions. The standard line is that its whaling industry is part of a long cultural tradition and Western critics who condemn the Japanese are merely displaying cultural insensitivity.
Both the country’s entrenched fishing-industry leaders—easily comparable in terms of the North American beef industry in terms of its economic and political clout—and a coalition of conservative politicians have demanded that there be no compromise, no scaling back of the country’s whale hunting.
Whaling no; country yes
Here’s the reality: Although only a rapidly shrinking minority of the Japanese public actually buys and consumes whale meat—I sampled it on a visit to Tokyo, and memories of all those movie scenes of sailors slicing up giant slabs of blubber pretty much killed whatever appetite I might have had for choking down the rubbery, greasy meat—a much larger percentage vocally supports the country’s whaling hunts.
Why? It’s a protest against the anti-whaling groups that have harassed Japanese whaling ships and condemned the country for continuing to eat whale meat. It’s similar to how most people in this country respond when encountering the “Ugly American” syndrome from foreigners who trash various aspects of our culture.
We might secretly agree, but we’ll resist such criticism because it comes across as an attack on our national identity.
Nobody likes that.
The more interesting question to ask, however, even as Japan turns away from eating whale meat, is how much credit is due the activists who have utilized high-profile intervention manoeuvres on the high seas to interrupt whale hunts by both Japanese and Norwegian whaling ships. The anti-whaling groups want full credit, of course, and openly demand validation of their aggressive, terrorist-type tactics.
But the growing consensus worldwide that whales deserve protection, not predation, is due more so to the positive imagery projected in hundreds of televised nature shows over the years, not to mention the tens of thousands of people who have gone on whale-watching trips and personally encountered the majestic beauty of the world’s largest animals.
That, more than any rubber raft attacks, has turned public opinion in favor of preservation, rather than extinction of the world’s whale population. The power of positive public and peer pressure is far more potent than even the most disturbing images used to create disgust and loathing.
Think about cigarette smoking, for example. All of the gruesome images of ex-smokers suffering the ravages of lung cancer and emphysema have proven less effective than the slow but relentless decline of social acceptance of smoking.
Light up a cigarette in a group of people these days, and you’ll immediately become the target of ugly glares, nasty remarks and outright hostility.
I’d imagine you’d get the same—or a worse—response if you loudly ordered the “sautéed whale” on a restaurant menu.
The power of positive behavioural modification can’t be underestimated. It’s the driving force behind virtually all of the vegetarian activist movement, for example. Condemning meat-eating, like anti-smoking ads, motivates a certain percentage of people. But a suggestion that skipping the steak is helping save the planet is a far more powerful force.
The challenge is for the industry to create its own positive messaging that links livestock production to the environmental, economic and social impacts that will positively motivate people.
Otherwise, meat-eating might someday mirror what whale-eating has already become.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.