U.S. appeals judge Alex Kozinski, last week, declared that the actions of the group known as the Sea Shepherds amount to piracy. The Sea Shepherds sail the oceans, chasing whaling vessels and trying to interfere with the killing of whales.
In 1976, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) set the quota for a certain species of whale found largely in the southern hemisphere at zero in an attempt to get around policy difficulties with bureaucracy. Japan promptly issued itself a permit to hunt whales for research purposes, as allowed by IWC rules, and to dispose of the meat and other valuable components on the Japanese market.
Since then, the Japanese have taken hundreds of these whales per year in the name of research… while making huge profits at around $50 per pound wholesale (and climbing) of whale meat. I’m really hoping they don’t start researching Italian Americans.
Several issues come up, here…
If whales are simply a resource to be harvested for our needs (or wants), then that resource should be preserved at optimum production levels. That isn’t happening.
One of the so-called strengths of our economic system (a system which is in force throughout most of the world) is that, as a resource becomes more scarce, its price rises, creating an incentive to develop new resources as replacements. But in the real world, as the price of a resource rises, the incentive that’s immediately created is to exploit every last molecule of that resource until it disappears.
The Japanese claim that whale populations are healthy and that their hunting, er… research does nothing to harm sustainability. But real research, not funded by those profiting from whaling, shows that whale populations are in decline.
But what if whales are not just a resource, like oil, but are living creatures that have some value, other than “use value?” Whales are intelligent and complex beings. They show surprising depth of emotion and their communications are stunning in their richness. Would westerners accept the hunting of chimpanzees for their meat? Or mountain gorillas?
The fact is that Americans can’t even stomach horse meat. Why is that? Sure, there are stories that the current horse meat “crisis” has to do with horses from eastern Europe that may have been in poor health before they were slaughtered. But there’s something much bigger than that going on.
Americans would absolutely not accept even good quality horse meat, because America loves horses. Horse lovers cite the animal’s intelligence and sensitivity as reasons that they are so precious to them. And the image of the horse is one of a great friend to us – a partner, not a stock of meat.
Meanwhile, only a few people shed a tear for the cow. Cows are certainly not as intelligent as whales, or even horses. Is that the difference? So where do we draw the line? The Japanese harvest lots of intelligent creatures, such as the incredible cuttle fish. To them, the cuttle fish is a resource too.
Being a carnivore myself, I find that I cannot answer this question. It seems it’s another subtle judgement call. Prey animals, like cattle and chickens, make up an important part of the human diet (although vegetarians and vegans would disagree) as fish and deer and prairie dogs make up important parts of the diets of their natural predators.
But if we upset the balance of nature by ourselves hunting ocean predators, such as whales and tuna, the populations of the species that eat the oceans’ algae will explode. This will mean yet another huge insult to the world’s oxygen production, until the algae-eaters crash from an algae shortage. Their decaying bodies will then produce carbon dioxide, contributing to climate change.
By coincidence (not really), it is the predators that happen to be the most intelligent animals, with few exceptions. So maybe there are sentimental as well as practical reasons to curtail activities such as whaling.
A few years ago, I spent six months living in Japan. I really like Japan and its people. I made lots of good friends there and I hated to leave. And one of the great things about that country is its food – delicious, healthy, and incredibly varied.
The Japanese have eating habits that they are loath to change. Japan continues to fish bluefin tuna toward oblivion, for example, as its appetite for it hasn’t slowed in the least with news of crashing bluefin populations.
Habits die hard. But we need to see the science by squinting through the fog of political and profit-driven spin. The human population on this Earth is huge and growing. We have long since passed the point where our activities have significant effects on the functioning of the ecology that is our life-support mechanism.
I’m not really sure if these are chief among the reasons that the Sea Shepherds risk their lives to protect whales and other sea creatures, or if they just want to preserve what little they can of the beautiful life on this planet. Either way, in the face of the unwillingness of politicians, worldwide, to slow the rate at which we change our world down to a level that can be understood in its impacts, they are bravely taking action. I wish we lived in a world were extreme action was unnecessary. But when the rates of destruction of important elements of our world are extreme, the wheels of politics turn too slowly, usually reacting only when it’s too late.
Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.