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Whales: cultural traditions vs conservative concerns

Japan’s withdrawal from the International Whaling Commission must be seen in the light of our own environmental decisions

On 26 December 2018, Japan confirmed its decision to resume commercial whaling, limiting the ‘commercial’ process to Japan’s territorial waters. This comes after its withdrawal from the International Whaling Commission, an international body which aims to “provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry”.The result has been international condemnation.

Japan joined the Commission in 1951, but the possibility of its withdrawal has loomed on the horizon for a while. In 1982, they opposed an international moratorium to allow whale stocks to recover, and were subsequently exempted from a proposal for a moratorium on all commercial whaling. Their disregard of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary’s boundaries – which ban all types of commercial whaling in 50 million square kilometres of Ocean surrounding Antarctica – followed this, as they continued to hunt under the pretence of allegedly conducting ‘scientific’ research.

Unsurprisingly, the move has prompted extensive backlash; Michael Gove tweeted that he was ‘extremely disappointed’ with the Japanese government’s decision, and Sam Annesley, Executive Director at Greenpeace Japan, criticised the government’s decision to announce its withdrawal at the end of the year, ‘away from the spotlight of international media’, but that ‘the world sees this for what it is’.

Why, then, have Japan decided to go ahead with such an internationally unpopular decision? Culture, it would seem. Chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga has said that the decision would allow fishermen to ‘pass our country’s rich whaling culture onto the next generation’. Shinrato Sato, the owner of a Japanese izakaya restaurant, similarly mused on Japan’s cultural connection with whaling when speaking to CNN, claiming that eating whale meat is an important part of the country’s ‘precious culinary culture’, which goes back some 4,000 years.

This raises the question as to where the line between being sympathetic to certain cultural traditions and protecting our environment ought to be drawn. In this case, it seems pretty clear that conservation concerns should reign supreme: despite doubts that Japan’s decision will make a substantial difference to whale populations, that the cultural tradition seems to be on its way out anyway arguably makes the move, and any loss of life it will bring about, unnecessary. An opinion poll in the liberal Asahi Shimbunnewspaper found that 48% of respondents had not eaten whale meat ‘in a long time’, compared to 37% who said they didn’t eat it at all. Given that many whale species remain threatened, it is a risk that is, quite frankly, not worth taking.

This does not mean that conservationists should never make concessions to those communities that depend on certain animals, plants or landscapes to sustain a long-standing cultural tradition. But in the war between culture and conservation, the former should only win out when scientists can guarantee that the practise can take place sustainably.

It is the way in which we attempt to implement this concept that is of the greatest importance if we are to move towards better international co-operation. Supporters of whale meat consumption often accuse western critics of ‘cultural imperialism’. We are certainly right to condemn Japan’s decision to restart commercial whale hunting on environmental grounds – but we can only avoid such accusations if we reflect on our owncultural choices concerning food.

Whilst the animals we most commonly eat in the West are not endangered species, we must not pretend that our decision to farm them does not do a great deal of environmental damage that endangers other species as a side effect. Texas University’s Professor Raj Patel notes that industrial agriculture is ‘absolutely responsible for driving deforestation’, making it ‘responsible for species loss’. Likewise, a study conducted by WWF in 2017 found that the UK food supply alone is directly linked to the extinction of an estimated 33 species ‘at home and abroad’.

Japan does contribute to such damage, of course – but according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s research conducted in 2017, Japan eats 78.7 lbs of meat per capita, compared to America’s 198.51 lbs, and the European Union’s 142.90 lbs. Can we really admonish Japan’s decision without being hypocritical, then?

Ultimately, however, co-operation, not culpability-contests and finger-wagging, lies at the heart of successful conservation. Japan’s move should incite protests, but it should equally incite a moment of reflection for conservationists as well as everyday citizens in the West, who ought to utilise well-publicised decisions like this one to encourage wider discussions to take place about our own cultural traditions surrounding food and the environmental impacts these are having as well. Every nation must be proactive in finding a sustainable balance between culture and conservation if we expect other countries to truly, and enduringly, co-operate with one another. This will surely be the key to both cultural and ecological preservation in the long run.

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