Monday, 11 February 2008

Of Mice and Men, and Whales and Cows and Cod

As you're perhaps aware, the issue of whaling has once again reared its head in the South Pacific. This is because Japan (like Norway, Iceland, Russia, and some other countries) has continued to hunt whales in small numbers despite the worldwide moratorium; it does this lawfully by killing the whales for supposedly 'scientific purposes' and then allowing their meat to be sold 'once research is finished'. (The Moratorium was started in the early 1980's essentially to collate data on whale populations in order to examine the damage done by whaling, so there remains a loophole for scientific research purposes.) It's a fiction, but it allows whaling to continue at a basically sustainable level. (For example, in 2005 Japanese whalers took 100 Sei Whales, 10 Sperm Whales, 50 Humpback Whales, 50 Fin Whales, 50 Bryde's Whales, and around 850 of the common Minke Whales. It is estimated that the worldwide population of the latter is just under a million.) Australia in particular objects to this, which is what the recent broohaha has been all about.

I've never particularly understood the moral objection to whaling which seems to motivate most Anglo populations in the world. (When it comes to animal rights, the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand are easily the most strident and simultaneously intellectually confused.) Whales are animals like any other, and if you're going to eat beef or pork there's really no moral difference to eating whale; in fact the latter is arguably more ethically sound in that whales live free and have rather nice lives until they're caught and eaten, unlike most farmed cows and pigs. The fact that whales are intelligent and 'majestic' or 'beautiful' (a commonly cited reason for the objection) shouldn't make a difference: the implication of such an argument is that it's only okay to kill and eat species that are 'stupid', like cows, which is inconsistent and illogical; a creature has as much right to life, surely, however stupid or intelligent it is - we abandoned that sort of categorization for humans a century or more ago. (And anyway we shouldn't base such decisions on subjective opinion - I happen to think cows are rather beautiful animals too, although strictly in the platonic sense.)

Ain't she gorgeous?

So if you're going to eat any meat at all, whales should be included. Of course, a vital caveat is that any hunting ought to be done sustainably. In that sense whales are like any major commercial fish species, like cod: there's no point in eating them to extinction, because that would cause irreparable damage to ecosystems and result in no more good eating. Most countries that practice whaling are well aware of this, which is why indigenous groups in Canada and Alaska carefully monitor whale populations in their areas to ensure positive growth even as they hunt. It is also why even Norway, the most ardent disciple of whaling in the world and the only country which absolutely rejects the international moratorium, restricts itself to a very small catch each year. Whales are actually comparatively easy to fish sustainably; it's simple to measure how many are being caught, unlike cod, and there's no chance of accidental overfishing (or, incidentally, the accidental catching of unwanted species as by-catch) because nets aren't used, only harpoons. Whale meat is also, I can personally attest, reasonably tasty. Rather like beef, although eaten as sashimi it is more like corned beef.

I would have more respect for Greenpeace and other environmentalist groups (and the Australian government) if they lobbied commercial fisherman with equal stridency (throwing stinkbombs, illegally boarding their ships, spraying graffiti) as they do Japanese whalers. But they don't. Funny that. The inescapable conclusion is that it all just comes down to that most ridiculous of prejudices: fish are slippery and slimy and ugly; whales are beautiful; so people can only get worked up about the hunting of the latter.


(NB: I feel it necessary to reiterate my fundamental opposition to unsustainable hunting or fishing of any kind. I believe that all fishing should be carefully monitored and all fisheries strictly managed. I include whales in this. [Whales aren't fish, strictly, I know. Neither are shrimp or lobsters. But the principle is the same.])


Bilbo said...

Well argued. Your point about whales having a comparatively nice life compared to factory-farmed cows and swine is perfectly true. As far as whales being more "majestic" and "beautiful," I suppose that's a matter of opinion. We took a cruise to Alaska a few years ago and spent an afternoon on a whale-watching outing, observing humpback whales cavorting around and leaping out of the water...much more photogenic than the average cow placidly chewing her cud in a field. However, as I have some experience in caring for cows (on my uncle's dairy farm), I do have an appreciation for them as well. Bottom line is that we're at the top of the food chain... they're not... and there's not much point in arguing the morality of fine dining as long as the hunting is necessary, sustainable, and done with minimum suffering to the dinee. Great post!

zero_zero_one said...

The big point for me (leaving aside things like the evolutionary standpoint that "you either adapt or you die out") is that I don't think it is acceptable for us to hunt/fish/deforest/pollute/eat species to the point of extinction.

Sustainability is key I think...

noisms said...

zero_zero_one: Exactly. And whales can be hunted sustainably in theory at least. So there's no problem.