A Dialogue with Carl Safina

A response to my piece from my friend Carl Safina, a prominent oceans advocate whose latest book is “The View from Lazy Point”:

SAFINA Email: My question: Did outsider pressure speed the end of Japan’s Antarctic whaling or prolong it?

From www.carlsafina.org, February 28th, 2011

Japanese Whaling Ship

Japan’s Antarctic whalers have given up the season early, having killed few whales.

But I wonder: If Westerners had ignored Japan’s whaling, would its whaling have died sooner, of its own internal economic problems?

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, whose boats have for several years harassed Japan’s whaling vessels in the Antarctic, claim victory

Sea Shepherd contended as recently as Feb. 19, 2011, that, “The Japanese government is posturing and talking big in an effort to save face. The reality is that the Japanese whaling industry is an antiquated, dying industry.”

That’s my point: 1) whaling is a dying industry, 2) whaling has been forced to “save face.” Forcing Japan to save face distracts Japan’s fisheries officials and public from focusing on the fact that whaling loses money.

I am not saying Western protest has not been felt. I’m saying it has. My question is whether that has caused push-back that has delayed modernization in Japanese policy. Junichi Sato, executive director of Greenpeace Japan, wrote on Feb 22, that for the past decade he and his colleagues have attacked whaling at its economic core, “showing the Japanese public the corruption that is rife inside the whaling industry. It’s Japanese taxpayer’s money that is continuing to bankroll ocean destruction, through the subsidies required to put the fleet to sea every year. As Japanese people become more aware of the corruption that has been propping their government’s bogus ‘scientific’ whaling, they are also becoming increasingly more vocal about ending it.”

If I were a member of Japan’s public, I might be more outraged by foreigners telling Japan what to do, but more convinced that whaling should end if I learned of wasted money and corrupt officials.

Japan’s officials have never apologized to foreign critics for whaling (or for excessive tuna fishing), but Greenpeace Japan reports that because it exposed internal scandals, “several Fisheries Agency officials publicly apologized for taking whale meat as gifts.” The second in command of the agency subsequently left his job. “We are seeing many signs that Japan no longer wants to go whaling,” says Junichi Sato, “Its current economic climate is just the tip of the iceberg.” The other problem: whale meat isn’t selling, and even before this hunting season, Japan was faced with what Greenpeace Japan called a, “ridiculously excessive stockpile of frozen whale meat.”

Sato, however, believes pressure must be maintained both from inside and outside Japan.

Back in May, the New York Times ran an article by Martin Fackler which explained that, “While few Japanese these days actually eat whale, criticism of the whale hunts has long been resented here as a form of Western cultural imperialism. Whaling was… a rare issue where Tokyo could appeal to conservatives by waving the flag and saying no to Washington.” In Fackler’s article, a lawmaker from the northern island of Hokkaido named Tadamasa Kodaira says—in reference to Sea Shepherd’s boats harassing Japan’s whalers—“We can’t change now because it would look like giving in.”

I realize it’s not that simple. Inside Japan, some say the real reason the ministry wants to keep the whaling program going is to secure cushy retirement jobs for ministry officials. “It is really just protecting bureaucratic self-interest,” said Atsushi Ishii, a professor of environmental politics at Tohoku University in Sendai.

So back to the question: Does outside protest speed or slow the demise of whaling? Let’s ask Isao Kondo, 83, retired after a career as a manager at the now-defunct Japan Whaling Company. Fackler quotes him as saying, “Japan doesn’t like being told what to do. But like it or not, whaling is dying.”

Carl: The question you raise is an interesting one. They definitely don’t like to be told what to do. I think it more likely that they left the whaling ground seemingly caving in to the Sea Shepherds, in exchange for a quid pro quo to whale off their own coasts.

I do think the Japanese have felt a lot of pressure from “The Cove,” don’t you? – Dick R. [“The Cove” is the Academy Award-winning documentary about the annual Japanese dolphin hunts in the town of Taiji].

Safina’s response: My general distinctions are:

If it’s profitable and thriving, it’s worth outsider pressure to weaken it (ie. The Cove).
If it’s economically non-viable, and it’s a matter of national pride that could delay its collapse (if abandoning it would look like caving in to outsiders), it might be worth walking away and watching it fall.

Throughout, insider pressure from within the countries involved is probably always valuable and more powerful.