The Culture War Within Whaling

Most people, including until recently myself, naively think hunting whales is limited people that live in igloos, dull dioramas found in history museums, or confined to the pages of Moby Dick. A year ago I honestly hadn’t given much thought to whaling, that commercial whaling ended and the only whaling occurring nowadays is witnessed on the pages of National Geographic. A culturally naïve view and one which I’m somewhat embarrassed to confess.  The truth is, however, that subsistence whaling meets a critical food need for many communities whose very lives are interconnected to the oceans and whales.

What is profoundly disturbing is the extent to which pro-whaling nations pose commercial whaling as a cultural necessity in a weak comparison to subsistence whaling. Such a claim insults those whose genuine traditions; culture, and lives, rely on whaling as a means to feed their communities for survival.  Japan insults generations of subsistence whaler communities by comparing their industrialized factory ship operations with subsistence.   The line between having whaling ties in your heritage and reliance upon whaling, as subsistence is one that’s easy to blur and Japan’s ‘Small Type Coastal Whaling’ proposal uses terminology aimed and accomplishing just that.  Many of us are so removed from whaling that we don’t realize  a return to the commercial exploitation of whales potentially lay just around the corner.  Thought whales were saved?  Me too.

Many towns in Japan, Norway and Iceland are strikingly similar to many in the Northeast United States.

Massachusetts is dotted with coastal towns with long standing history closely tied
to whaling. Not to far from IFAW’s world headquarters, the towns of
Gloucester and New Bedford, Massachusetts where both built on the
whaling industry.   Whale oil lit the lamps throughout the United
States, so much so that New Bedford was known as the ‘City that Lit the
World’. Out of 700 US whaling ships in the 1840’s, 400 of them called
New Bedford their homeport. However this industry did not last forever
and a short time later commercial whaling ended due to a combination of
factors, including the discovery of fossil fuels.   Whaling is
inextricably tied to the culture and heritage of New England and
despite no longer being practiced you can find many whaling museums,
books, and even festivals that celebrate this important era in US
maritime history.  All occur without killing a single whale.

Religion and culture are subjects those who lack direct
experience can legitimately refute. To do so, allows the individual
questioning these practices to easily be labeled culturally ignorant,
insensitive or even accused of outright bigotry.  Playing the culture
card is, undoubtedly unethical, however allowing it to influence global
conservation policy is far worse. In doing so we succumb to those that
use these immoral tactics.  No one wants to be accused of bigotry, and
Japans claim of commercial whaling as cultural necessity leverages our
own strong values of diversity against us.

Posing a commercial enterprise under the guise of cultural
responsibility is unfortunately used to mask irresponsible or even
illegal activity.  You don’t have to look far for examples of this
unethical tactic.  In my younger years I remember boarding school
classmates who unexplainably and quite suddenly became devout
Rastafarians as it allowed them to cite smoking marijuana as a
religious mandate.  Any authority figures that attempted prosecution of
the drug-smoking crowd were immediately charged with invading a
student’s freedom of religion.    It was rarely successful but appeared
as a valid defense. After all, who is an outsider to question an
alleged Rastafarians practices.  The same is true for whaling.

Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), a government
organization founded primarily to circumvent a worldwide moratorium on
commercial whaling, claims that hunting whales is fundamentally tied
into Japanese heritage.  A recent ICR publication states that ‘Asking
Japan to abandon this part of its culture would [whaling] 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 culture claim seems to have reeled in Bill
Hogarth, former Director of the US National Marine Fisheries Service,
hook, line, and sinker. Despite no longer leading the federal agency
responsible for managing most anything that swims US territorial seas,
Hogarth simultaneously holds the position of Chair at the International
Whaling Commission and head commissioner of the US delegation.  The
save the whales slogan may have been painted on signs, buttons, and
voiced to the point of utter cliché years ago but our government seems
to have not gotten the message.

Although there remains ample room for improvement the US has
some of the best regulations protecting whales in the world.  Despite
this fact, an American, a marine scientist, now leads the negotiations
expected to allow certain countries to once again commercially hunt
whales.  For the better half of the past decade, this same individual
was charged with protecting America’s living marine resources yet today
is leading the effort to legitimize commercial whaling.  Thought whales
were saved? Me too.

In a recent interview with a UK news program, Hogarth
demonstrated his grave misunderstanding of the fundamental debate
surrounding this heated conflict.   Hogarth correctly commented “you
have to look at the culture and background of these countries” as many,
including the US, have valid indigenous peoples who for millennia have
hunted whales for subsistence. Hogarth said that the “US has
subsistence whaling that we’ve had for Eskimo’s because it’s there way
of life.”  Yet Japan is asking to lift the moratorium on commercial
mismanagement of a species that we know little about.  This isn’t one
or two bowhead whales, this is commercial whaling. Make no mistake
about it.  This is the exploitation of both whales and native peoples
by riding on the coat tails of genuine polar communities hunting for
survival.  It has nothing to do with subsistence, culture, or
tradition.  To make such a claim is to insult all those native peoples
who have for millennia survived through responsible use of ocean
resources.  Claiming the right to exercise a cultural prerogative, ICR
knowingly compares whaling to millennia old Japanese traditions such as
origami or flower arranging in a pathetic attempt to tie Japan’s
grenade tipped harpoons to these honorable traditions.

Centuries ago whalers did not travel thousands of miles
aboard ships able to operate in the harsh Antarctic, nor were they
armed with explosive high power harpoons, or able to process dozens of
whales a day from live whale to frozen box in minutes. They rowed or
sailed out in ships, many which sank in storms.  They used hand thrown
harpoons, and often spent hours hauling in a single whale, which would
feed an entire village.   Aboriginal whaling today remains largely
unchanged.  It’s people using their hands and an entire community
coming together for a timeless tradition.  When a bowhead whale is
brought to shore in Alaska, an entire community comes out to cook and
store every minute piece of the behemoth. In comparison, Japan’s 8,000
ton factory ship accompanied by a fleet of seven vessels, spends months
at sea with advanced navigation, propulsion, and refrigeration to take
a 35 foot minke whale from living, breathing giant to spam sized
container is no time flat.

At this year’s 60th  meeting of the IWC, Japan submitted a
proposal (a longstanding administrative ritual) to allow for what they
refer to as  a small type coastal whaling proposal(STCW).  It’s a
crafty use of words that claims four towns in Japan are so dependant on
whaling, that their entire survival looms on the decision to kill
whales.  Reminds me a lot of Gloucester, Massachusetts where the
economy was hit by declining fisheries.  Fishery declines are no reason
to continue ocean exploitation and countless coastal communities have
suffered, not just the four in Japan, because of the decline in global
fisheries. Heritage is not a reason to prolong known exploitation and
comparing Japan’s whaling to the fishermen of a bygone era is an insult
to all who have perished at sea gathering a food source for

When foreign factory ships decimated US ground fish stocks,
no country dared claim cultural necessity.  The last thing anyone has
the guts do is accuse fishing being of more importance to anyone other
than a New Englander.  Go ahead, try walking into the Crows Nest at on
Rodgers street in Gloucester, propose that theory and see how well you
walk out of the building.  Despite what folks might think in a New
England’s close ties to fishing are not unique, in many countries
fishing is intractably woven into art, music, and cultural history,
especially the island nation of Japan. Yet in every reflection of
culture little mention is made of massive factory ships in the art;
stories, poems of any coastal community.  To reassure myself of this, I
recently went for a walk through the quiet halls of the metropolitan
museum of art in Washington, D.C. As you pass through a corridor lined
with works by Monet, Hokusai, and O’keefe, you enter into the wing
dedicated solely to Japanese art. The gallery is filled with
spectacular works created between the 16th and 18th centuries in Japan.
Artists such as Ogawa Ritsuo, whose paintings show importance the sea
during the Edo period. Beautiful pottery, teapots, and bowls,
skillfully crafted using intricate designs of cobalt preserved under
translucent glaze, depicting images of the sea, fish, and wooden
fishing boats. Japan is, of course, an island nation and the vital link
between the ocean and the souls of Japanese people is reflected.  Each
of these masterful works of art reflect wonderful Japanese heritage.
Strangely, among all the oceanic beauty forever etched in the stone, or
painted on bamboo centuries ago, none depict scenes of Antarctic
whaling.  There are no icebergs, high-powered harpoons nor large
factory ships.  There were only paintings of men braving breaking seas
in small open boats, powered only by oars and a small sail.  They
caught fish or maybe a whale using hand gear. 

We must not succumb to those who hijack international policy
and use our own practices of political correctness and cultural
sensitivity against us. The voices of those charged in leading the
opposition to commercial whaling cannot remain silent in fear
pro-whalers vote block genuine subsistent whalers.

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