A whale of a controversy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 December, 2008, 12:00am

Eating whale meat - a traditional source of protein in countries like Japan - has become a taboo in many countries that before hunted the mammals

Tucking into a nice, juicy cut of whale may sound despicable to some, but to others, whale steak is as culturally acceptable as sirloin.

For instance in Wakayama, a coastal town in Japan, school cafeterias serve spaghetti with whale meatballs, whale bolognaise and whale burgers. The whaling industry provides a vital source of income and food for the population of 4,000.

This month Japan also dispatched its annual whaling fleet to Antarctica, in search of 1,000 whales for 'scientific research'. The whales are killed for research purposes, and the meat is sold for food.

However, many anti-whaling groups accuse Japan of using science as a thinly-disguised excuse to hunt whales for commercial purposes.

Today, whaling is harshly condemned by countries and conservationists around the world. Only Norway, Iceland and Japan are known to actively hunt the intelligent mammal.

Australia, the United States and Britain are among the loudest anti-whaling activists, sometimes threatening whaling countries with embargoes and at times, violence (see sidebar). The three nations are all part of an international anti-whaling union called the International Whaling Commission, which was formed in 1946 to promote whale conservation. In 1982, the IWC announced a moratorium to ban all commercial whaling. The rule allows whales to be killed for scientific research purposes.

Less than a century ago, however, most of the countries in the IWC were heavily engaged in the practice. At that time, countries such as the United States and Britain aggressively hunted whales for their oil, and some experts say this is why whales are so scarce today.

Pro-whaling countries accuse anti-whaling nations of imposing cultural biases on them.

'Asking Japan to abandon this part of its culture would compare to Australians being asked to stop eating meat pies, Americans being asked to stop eating hamburgers and the English being asked to go without fish and chips,' the Japan Whaling Association once wrote.

'Attitudes toward animals are a part of national cultures. No nation should try to impose their attitudes on others.'

Whale was once a primary source of protein in Japan - peaking after the second world war - and is now largely a delicacy appreciated most by older generations. Whale meat is high in protein, low in fat, relatively cheap and allegedly tastes like high-quality beef.

Pro-whaling lobbies have also pointed out that eating whale is better for the environment. In March this year, the High North Alliance, a Norwegian group representing coastal communities, released a study that showed that 1kg of whale meat produced 1.9kg of greenhouse gases, compared to 15.8kg for beef, 6.4kg for pork and 4.6kg for chicken.

'Basically, it turns out that the best thing you can do for the planet is to eat whale meat compared to other types of meat,' said Rune Froevik of the High North Alliance.

But taste for whale meat appears to be fading, as can be seen in opinion polls and the popularity of whale restaurants. Last month Yushin, a restaurant run by Japan's Institute for Cetacean Research - a proponent of whaling research, shut down its flagship in a popular Tokyo district due to financial reasons.

Extreme measures

Despite its intentions, sometimes anti-whaling activists can go too far. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is an American non-profit group notorious for using violent methods to sabotage whaling fleets. They call themselves 'eco-pirates' and claim all their activities are done in the name of marine conservation.

Last year, some Sea Shepherd members surrounded a Japanese whaling ship and hurled bottles of acid at it in protest, injuring at least two crewmen. Each party pointed blame at the other.

The international community is publicly against this group's use of violence. Even the anti-whaling coalition IWC condemned the Sea Shepherd's actions.