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Monday, Dec. 25, 2000

THE VIEW FROM NEW YORK

Emotion trumps logic in whaling debate


Over a sushi lunch with Scott Latham, I mention "whaling," and Scott, my trade-consultant friend, doesn't miss a beat: "The Whaling Wall."

I brought up the topic because the first secretary of the Embassy of Japan, in Washington, had come to New York a few days earlier to discuss whaling, and he had done so because the U.S. government was preparing to put into effect sanctions against Japan. As he explained, one of the enabling laws is the Pelly Amendment, which is part of the Fishermen's Protective Act of 1967. It authorizes penalizing "nationals of a foreign country" for actions that "diminish the effectiveness of an international fishery conservation program" and "any international program for endangered or threatened species."

I was curious to learn what the first secretary had to say. Like most of my generation of Japanese, I grew up when whale meat was an important source of protein. Also, by some fluke, my college graduation thesis was on "Moby Dick."

On the other hand, I arrived in the United States when the focus on cetaceans was swinging from their utility for humans to their intelligence (and, yes, their cuteness in the case of dolphins). And not long after my arrival, an international moratorium on commercial whaling was instituted in 1972 with Japan as the main target. The change in American attitude and the international decision would make, I expected, any defense of Japan's whaling a Sisyphean struggle, if that was what the first secretary had in mind.

I'm afraid the secretary's talk was a failure.

Apparently exasperated by the prevailing sentiment in Washington that whaling is a "crime," not to mention environmentalists' willful disregard for science (or common sense), the secretary did not explain well the purpose of his talk: to persuade the audience that commercial whaling, which is the ultimate goal of what Japan is doing (though with the sneer-provoking pretext of "scientific research"), is justifiable.

As a result, when, after the secretary's talk, a gentleman in the audience asked what would be the merit or demerit of stopping Japan's whaling, the secretary's response raised many eyebrows, I think. He said it would save the Japanese government money. The number of whales caught today doesn't make Japan's whaling "commercially viable."

(A friend of mine in Tokyo, Akira Ueda, did a quick Internet search for me and came up with a whaling-related site ( www.kansai.ne.jp/simetani). The price of whale meat listed there would "knock you out," he said. His reaction was no surprise considering that when he grew up, whale meat was served for lunch at school!)

Now, my young colleague at work, Donald Howard, warned he wouldn't speak to me if I wrote an article supporting whaling. So here I'd like to limit myself to the few things I learned along the way.

The International Whaling Commission is unlike most other international bodies: It accepts as members nations that have no whaling business, such as Switzerland. In addition, many of its members are dead against whaling. That would be like a World Trade Organization made up of nontrading nations and nations that are against international trade.

The political and intellectual shenanigans the IWC is forced to play as a result is eloquently described in an Atlantic Monthly article called "Flouting the Convention." Written by three professors, William Aron (fisheries science), William Burke (law and marine affairs) and Milton Freeman (anthropology), the May 1999 article can be read on the Internet. (If you read it, you might also want to take a look at another one in the same magazine, "To whale or not to whale." The poet Mark Derr wrote the October 1997 piece.)

In "directing that Japan be denied future access to fishing rights in U.S. waters," U.S. President Bill Clinton said, "strong international cooperation has allowed the recovery of many whale species once pushed to the brink of extinction." That, various reports suggest, appears to be true. With some species, the recovery may have pushed their populations above the levels before large-scale commercial whaling.

One example is the gray whale ("kokujira" or "kokukujira" in Japanese). That's the species famous for migrating up and down the West Coast of the U.S. and breeding in Baja California where people go to "pet them and touch them and be with these giant creatures" -- to quote someone quoted in Robert Sullivan's "A Whale Hunt" (Scribner, 2000).

"The National Marine Mammals Laboratory released figures today showing the latest estimation of gray whales at 26,600," a UPI dispatch on March 19, 1999, said. "The population was down to around 4,000 at the end of the 19th century, when commercial whaling thrived. The number was up to an estimated 23,100 when the whales were removed from Endangered Species Act protection in 1994."

The figures 23,000 and 26,000 are "within the range (20,000 to 30,000) estimated in 1850 before Yankee whalers' counts made at a central California shore station during the whales' southern migration," as another report put it. The recovery was such, in fact, that various U.S. reports in 1999 said that 800 to 1,000 gray whales were washed up dead, probably from starvation, during the season of that year alone.

And yet, when the Makah, the Native Indian tribe at "the most northwestern tip of America," tried to kill a single gray whale to revive their tradition, what a glorious fuss Americans made! It is the subject of the book I've just mentioned, "A Whale Hunt" -- which, incidentally, uses "Moby Dick" as a curious backdrop.

No, I am not out to persuade anyone. I know there is Scott's "Whaling Wall." I can't help wondering nonetheless: Banning the slaughter of all whales for human consumption because humans once drove some of their species close to extinction -- wouldn't it be like banning the slaughter of all quadrupeds because humans once did the same with the American bison?

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.


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