Tsukiji 2014- a complicated relationship

On November 17th the IUCN Red List was updated. Pacific Bluefin Tuna was moved from the ‘least concerned’ category to ‘vulnerable’ in recognition of the extinction risk the species faces (http://www.iucnredlist.org/news/global-appetite-for-resources-pushing-new-species-to-the-brink).




Ten days earlier I took what is becoming a yearly walk through Tsukiji market. The scale is still overwhelming. How much seafood is coming out of the ocean every single day? Can it sustain that volume? What will we do when the fish are gone?


That said, I’m impressed by the marketplace: the industriousness, sincerity and professionalism of the people who make their living in the fishing industry. My photos usually focus on them, and their humanity, rather than the catch.



As I write this, my glass of wine is resting on a recipe booklet for how to prepare whale. My friend and colleague handed it to me with a sly grin when we passed one of the sellers of kujira (whale). He was my Chief Scientist 4 years ago when I spent two months on a Japanese research vessel. He recognizes the differences between our two countries’ popular opinion of whaling, and respects my views, but always teases me about eating whale.


There seemed to be more booths selling whale meat this year than last. But the recipe booklets are new. Marketing has stepped up. And I didn’t see any other product for sale that came with a recipe booklet. Consumers know what to do with the other plunder from the sea. Whale meat has decreased in popularity in Japan over the years; hence the extra push.


How to reconcile the earnestness of people just trying to make a living, with conservation crises?

The crew and officers of the Japanese ship I sailed on also head down to Antarctica each year for the Japanese whaling season. I was the only Westerner and only female on the ship, for 60 days. To a man, my fellow shipmates were courteous, kind-hearted, and friendly, if a little shy. They are also exceptionally good at what they do. I’ve never seen such teamwork, or such a demonstration of good attitudes. And the company they work for happens to run the whaling ships.


In contrast, I’d spent five years studying humpback whale behavioral biology and my career was founded on the premise of the conservation and recovery of whale species. I’d made eye contact with whales, spent hours in the water with the whales, tracked them with boats and from shore. I’d been accidentally bumped into by a whale (who was also very courteous); I’d heard a whale scream underwater (on two different occasions) in what I assume was a competitive move by a male, and I’d had whales follow my boat*. And there I was, a representative of the American government, on a Japanese whale research vessel.


Who were these guys? How could they make their livings hunting whales?

So I asked them.


And the first fundamental difference I learned, was that they really don’t think of whales the same way we do. Americans (and others) are raised revering whales as symbols of the environmental movement, as great wondrous beasts with almost mythical abilities for communication and connection. For many Japanese, whales are another resource. Just like they used to be for us, once upon a time.

(And let me tell you, one short snorkel through a cloud of whale shit and whales lose their mythical aspect pretty quickly.)


There are great political battles happening all the time at the International Whaling Commission and I don’t want to get into the discussion of the scientific nature of Japan’s whaling program, because I’m focusing on the people on the ground/deck. So for the sake of argument, and to better understand my shipmates, let’s assume that Japan’s take of whales is sustainable. And in that case, what makes taking a number of Antarctic minkes, who’ve lived freely in the ocean, worse than our cattle, pork or poultry industry?


The majority of Japan’s take is minke whale. The rest of their large whale take are mostly baleen whales (though not humpbacks, as Sea Shepherd would like you to believe). From a behavioral, or cognitive, standpoint, baleen whales don’t have the same level of rich social structure and behavioral complexity that is seen in toothed whales, or pigs, for that matter. **

So these guys were just doing their jobs. And as far as they’re concerned, they’re providing a healthier and potentially more ethical source of meat than their counterparts in the cattle and pig industries. Given the condition that many animals are born into, live through and die by to support Americans’ fondness for cheap red meat,  I had a hard time arguing with their perspective.



My point is not to support Japanese (or any other) whaling, but simply to say that it’s harder to point a finger than some want to believe. And while I might disagree with decisions made by the Japanese government on this matter, I don’t fault the people employed by the whaling (or fishing) industry any more than I would fault the employees of any ranch, farm, feedlot, or slaughterhouse in the US (and maybe less so). ***



If people have a problem with whaling, or fishing, or ranching, it seems to me that the two avenues to effect change are through politics, and through the market. Not through demonizing those who are filling a demand.

Economics and policy. Marketing and civic engagement.

Consumer choices.

If the demand is there, someone will fill it.




It’s hard to try to adopt another person’s perspective. We’re raised surrounded by people who’ve received the same input we have. We *know* what’s right. Right?

But the truth is often somewhere between two people’s (or countries) perspectives. Science is supposed to be unbiased, and with enough data and transparency, it is. But bias can skew which questions get asked, and which data get reported. So it’s important to be skeptical, and to understand that you might initially only see part of the story. And to keep asking questions, and listening to the answers.



Contributing to the demand...

Contributing to the demand…

*All research activities were conducted under federal and state research permits allowing us to approach whales

**I have a personal belief that humpback whales fall somewhere between the other baleen whales and toothed whales on the intelligence spectrum, but my evidence is mainly anecdotal.

***The views represented here are my own and not that of my employer ( or some colleagues for that matter).


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