Tuesday 08 April 2003

The raw and the cooked (Cetacean)

While the world’s attention has been focused on the Middle East, respected Australian environmental scientist, Dr Tim Flannery, has caused a furor by suggesting that “less intelligent whale species are much like sheep and should be sustainably hunted.”

In a paper about to be published in the Quarterly Essay, Dr Flannery, who is director of the South Australian Museum, accuses some “save the whale” campaigners of wooly thinking:

What people fail to realise is that the Cetacea (the group to which whales and dolphins belong) is an extraordinarily diverse group of mammals… It includes relatively large-brained hunters like dolphins and killer whales (which have the demonstrable intelligence of land-based hunters such as dogs) and tiny-brained filter feeders such as the blue whale. These leviathans are aquatic vacuum-cleaners, whose need for intellectual power is slight indeed.

If these animals are closer in intelligence to the sheep than the dog, is it morally wrong to eat them if they can be harvested sustainably? My view is that at present the anti-whaling lobby is frustrating the attempt to develop a sustainable industry based on these creatures, and is therefore frustrating good management of marine resources.

Arguing that it is these filter feeders—rather than the more intelligent hunters—that Japanese and Norwegian whalers target, Dr Flannery added insult to injury by suggesting that it’s the Japanese who are actually trying “to create a sustainable whaling industry.”

Needless to say, anti-whaling spokespeople were massively unimpressed. The Sydney Morning Herald quoted Michael Kennedy, director of Humane Society International in Australia, as saying: “Flannery’s argument only has friends in Japanese, Norwegian and Icelandic circles.” Quentin Hanich from Greenpeace told ABC News Online that “even though blue whales might have small brains, there are only around 2,000 left and they need to be preserved.” He added:

“We don’t protect trees because of intelligence or any other vulnerable species because of their intelligence, we protect them because of their importance in the ecosystem and because of their biodiversity values,” he said.

“To me it’s totally irrelevant whether a blue whale is able to play chess or is a filter feeder.”

I might find Mr Hanich’s argument more persuasive if the anti-whaling lobby hadn’t worked so assiduously to persuade us that whales and dolphins shouldn’t be hunted because they are so intelligent. If blue whales are closer in intelligence to the sheep than the dog and if they can be harvested sustainably—as Dr Flannery suggests—then surely the argument against hunting them falls apart. (Although my case may be weakened or strengthened, depending on one’s viewpoint, by the fact that I’ve eaten sheep, dog, and whale—as well as snake, cat, crocodile, kangaroo, and emu).

For me the most logical position is to be either a carnivore or a vegetarian. Whereas I respect anyone who refuses to eat meat for ethical reasons, I’m happy to eat pretty much anything that’s put on my plate, as long as it’s not a protected species and it’s not still alive. That the issue is frequently discussed on the basis of emotion rather than logic was brought forcefully home to me in a conversation I had with a Chinese woman while I was living in Japan. She was horrified to learn I’d eaten kangaroo—“But they’re so cute,” she told me—while seeing no problem in eating live monkey brains. Accordingly, in Japan I feel OK about eating whale meat that has been legally harvested under the quota allowed by the IWC but won’t eat live lobster sashimi.

As Gregory Jackson writes in this old Asahi Evening News story, “whale still appears periodically on the menu at izakaya bars around the country, but not many restaurants specialize in it.” Kujira-ya (The Whale Restaurant) in Tokyo’s trendy Shibuya district offers a complete whale-based cuisine including the three dishes I tried: sashimi, steak, and tonkatsu (crumbed and deep-fried). Apart from suggesting the restaurant is difficult to find, which it’s not really—it’s in a basement, not far from the corner of the 109 Building and diagonally opposite the Book One bookstore—this BBC Science/Nature story, titled Dining out on a guilt trip gives an accurate account of the experience, concluding that:

All in all, it is a fascinating and delicious experience - but then I guess animal rights campaigners would say that while whale, veal and paté foie gras may all be tasty, they are also morally unacceptable.

It’ll be interesting to follow Dr Flannery’s suggestion for sustainable whale harvesting though my guess it will have little impact. Gregory Jackson notes researcher Anny Wong’s belief that the reluctance of environmentalists to give up the fight extends beyond whaling itself. As Wong herself says:

The ramifications may be even greater for those environmental movements than for the pro-whaling countries. The latter are fighting for a principle, while the former rely on the anti-whaling campaign for their image, credibility as an environmental group, and for finance. The whale icon is a powerful money raiser.

Permalink | Technorati


A very good article, Jonathon. I agree with you that the principal agrument for sustained whale hunting (or any hunt/fisheries for that matter) should not be the animal's intelligence but whether the hunt could be done in a sustainable manner.

We shouldn't hunt animals because they are less intelligent than we are, but if they can procreate and have a large enough population for the speices to live in the future, I see nothing wrong with taking a limited quota of animals.

For certain speices, NOT hunting can even create an imbalance in the oceans: if we fish the fish some of the whales eat, and we don't hunt some whales - there may be situations where the whales themselves make their food - the fish "endangered"...

For future reference there are also some whaling links here:

Posted by Anders Jacobsen on 8 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

As a vegetarian, I’m perhaps not a legitimate participant in this discussion, but I am curious to know how one eats “live” monkey brains or lobster. At what point does the creature/food become “dead”?

Posted by AKMA on 9 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

THe problem with your argument Anders, at least the way you state it, is that when you state:

"that the principal agrument for sustained whale hunting (or any hunt/fisheries for that matter) should not be the animal's intelligence but whether the hunt could be done in a sustainable manner."

You create the possibility that if the species being hunted is as. or more, intelligent than us then it too is fair game so long as the hunt is sustainable. I don't think that is a morally tenable position.

What if they are only a tiny bit less intelligent than us - say on the level of a chimp or orangutang or bonobo (man's closest relative)? Is that justified? They are clearly intelligent and capable of learning and show evidence of vivid imaginations. Where exactly do you draw the line and just how do you go about determing this inteligence anyways?

A mere two decades or so ago scientists who suggested that any of the apes were intelligent risked destroying their careers as it was a given in the scientific community that none of the other great apes were capable of learning language and transmitting that learned language to others of their species. That has been shown to be a false belief. The reaction of linguists has been to make the definition of intelligence a constantly shifting set of goalposts. As an ape reaches one goalpost they redefine intelligence to eliminate the apes. So either linguists have no clue as to what intelligence is and they are laying a scam on academia in which case their input should be ignored instead of being given the gatekeepers role, or, they are practicing a form of chauvinists that will never accept intelligence in another species, xenophobia.

For an example of just how intelligent bonobos may be see http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99993218 .

Posted by The Dynamic Driveler on 9 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

While I agree with Dr. Flannery's belief that environmental decisions shouldn't be based on emotion, much of the whaling policy in the world is based more on scientific fact and experience, than emotion. The emotion is usually brought in to convince the untrained peoples, such as ourselves. No one could call the IWC (International Whaling Commission) 'emotional'.

This is a complex topic, one that is unfortunately being flattened by Dr. Flannery's sweeping statement, with little supporting _fact_ of his own to back up his statement.

For instance, Anders, you'll find that whale's 'competition' with us for the same food fish is basically non-existent. Man's own overfishing is the primary reason for lack of food fish, as is coastal pollution, and manipulation of breeding streams. Whale's for the most part, hunt for food of no interest to us, or in waters we don't fish.

As for support of whaling, some would say that whaling is an important part of a country's culture and income, or food supply. For instance, there's Japan's assertion that the country should be allowed to increase whaling because it is part of that country's culture. Yet when Ireland made a counter-proposal that would allow the more traditional whale hunting in Japan -- which is coastal -- the Japanese rejected it in favor of deep sea whaling, which they only started in the 1900's.

As for economics, whale meat is a delicacy, with little impact on the economics of the Japanese fishing industries. What did I read once? Less one 1% of the industry is related to whaling? I doubt the Norwegian whaling isn't a dependent economic factor in that country, either.

Economically, more countries benefit from whale watching then whale harvesting. Bottom line.

As for food, whale meat, such as the popular minke whale, is showing increasing evidence of the pollution that exists in our oceans. Since pollutants concentrate in fat and are never leached, any food from the waters with a high proportion of fat -- such as whale -- should be suspect as a food source. Whale meat being contaminated was demonstrated to the Norwegian whaling industry when they resumed export of whale meat against IWC resolution, and the fact was disregarded.

Higher food chain whales show the most contaimination, but even the baleen whales such as the minke are showing unsafe levels of contamination. Something for people to keep in mind as they dig into a tasty plate of whale steak.

(And Jonathon, as a side note, that whale you might have Japan on your next trip was most likely caught through the IWC loophole which allowed harvesting of whale for scientific research. The Japanese whaling industry has indulged in quite a lot of research.)

As for the the stability of whale populations, we're finding that man is still killing whales, but without harpoons. The larger, more complex the creature, the more vulnerable to changing environment. Increased pollution and shipping on the oceans is continuing the decline of most whale species. We only recently are finding that the sounds of ships could be what's responsible for whole herds of whale beaching themselves in confusion.

And we don't know enough about the ocean to use it as 'grange' for a food crop. We just recently made a significant discovery in marine biology with the 'colossal' squid. Think of it -- creatures as long as an 8 story building, perhaps even larger, inhabiting our oceans. We know that they are an important part of the whale's ecosystem, but we don't know the role whales play as part of their eco-system.

With all our research and effort, we still know so little about the oceans beyond our coastal areas -- too little to effectively use them as grangeland for any form of 'sustainable' farming, and that's the best reason _not_ to allow the Japanese whaling plans at this time.

(Even considering the Japanese assertion that harveting Minke would help to re-populate baleen species such as Blue whale, whose populations were decimated due to earlier whaling.)

Interesting, but Dr. Flannery's knows all of this. Why he chooses to not mention these issues in the same context of his statement about 'sustainable farming of whale' is puzzling. I guess one would have to buy his book and read it in full to see his reasoning.

Posted by Burningbird on 10 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Burningbird touches on the thorny issue of animal intelligence and the ethics of eating them which this topic raises. Peter Singer (http://www.petersingerlinks.com/) has of course written extensively on this aspect of bio-ethics. Monkeys have from time immemorial been hunted and eaten in various parts of the world. If you start drawing lines, where do you stop? Give all species an IQ test and roast those that don't make the pass mark? And there is research by Professor Stanley Curtis on the cognitive abilities of pigs which is said to have demonstrated they are highly intelligent. I can find only hearsay evidence, not experimental results, but there is this page http://aginfo.psu.edu/psa/fw97/eye.html which seems to prove I'm not imagining it.

On two rather more frivolous notes:

I was once given a pro-whaling campaign t-shirt from Norway. It said "Intelligent people need intelligent food" above a cartoon of a whale with a broad grin waving its flipper. That slogan will have to go. (I never wore the t-shirt.)

My father ate whale meat in London during the second world war. He took me to the same cafe for lunch yesterday, but of course whale was no longer on the menu. He said it always made him ill.

Posted by qB on 10 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

*Beating head against wall*

Posted by Burningbird on 10 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

sorry sorry... it was very late over here but that doesn't excuse misattribution... hope head is not too sore... it was the dynamic driveler... sorry to both...

Posted by qB on 10 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

No problem qB. Besides, head banging is good for me. Knock sense into head (or out of it).

Posted by Burningbird on 12 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

AKMA... I've actually had this information on live monkey brains imparted in a Mandarin cooking class in San Francisco. The short answer is: "You don't want to know." The somewhat longer answer is, "Yup, they ain't dead yet." Longer by a single character...

Posted by fp on 13 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This issue came up on a somewhat smaller scale several years ago in Washington state, when a native tribe wanted to exercise its right by treaty to harvest a small amount of gray whales a year as part of a hunting ceremony. I had to say, as much as I like whale watching, my opinion fell on the side of the Makah (http://www.makah.com/whales.htm)-- they were intending to hunt the whales in little canoes with spears. In my mind, that's pretty clearly sustainable; but, "sustainable" gets harder when you're dealing with entire countries, rather than a tribal group of around 2000 people. And in this particular case, I found the Makah's cultural justification for their decision was valid. If I recall correctly, however, the Makah whale hunt was brought to an end due to public backlash, (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/maka01.shtml).

In a broader scope view, however, I see any discussion of sustainable hunting as irrelevant when it only focuses on a particular species. Ultimately, we overconsume way too many different species already. While I understand the validity of attempting to address the pure (and maybe at times irrational) emotionalism behind a lot of our dietary choices, I think our time is better spent understanding what "sustainable" is. As Bb mentioned, there's still a lot missing from our knowledge about marine ecosystems, and how pollution and our industrial development have effected the oceans, and how marine species interrelate.

Posted by Andrea on 13 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

this is a sick site

Posted by jessica on 9 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour