In his New York Times blog, Andy Revkin writes about both Japan’s fading passion for whale meat and Japan’s entrenched bureaucratic defense of whaling. He speculates that I’d love to see the Japanese stop eating both whales and tuna. He’s half right.
What’s weird about Japan’s nationalistic policies on whaling and fishing is that they’re out of character with Japan’s status as the most westernized country in Asia. Where else in Asia do people love baseball, listen to jazz, and ride commuter trains to work in Western suits and ties? Yet oddly, considering its embrace of all things Western, Japan stubbornly rejects the one thing that could really save its food culture: a conservation ethic.
I am against whaling because whales remain deeply depleted by whaling, because whales are worth more alive for whale-watching, because it’s horrifically cruel, and because whaling has always involved lying about what kind and how many are being killed (DNA shows that whalers continue to lie about which species are being killed.)
But no, I would not insist that Japanese people stop eating tuna. I would insist they stop demolishing Atlantic bluefin tuna. That’s it.
Pacific bluefin, southern bluefin, yellowfin, bigeye, albacore and skipjack tuna – not to mention lots of other things sold in sushi restaurants – could still be sustainably caught and well managed before they follow Atlantic bluefin into total mismanagement, corruption, and depletion. This is the part Japan insists on not understanding. They, as much as anyone, should be the engine behind conserving Atlantic bluefin because they love to eat it so much.
But Japan’s high-profile resistance to conservation of any marine animals, and their antiquated knee-jerk rejection of bluefin tuna conservation, has set a tone for global fisheries management that is now putting other tuna species on a downward trend. The biggest threat to Japan’s market for tuna and for tuna’s prominence in Japanese food – is Japan.
For its self-defeating antics on these issues, Japan deserves all the criticism it gets. But because “saving face” is such a big part of the dynamic, some of the criticism, and some of the tactics of conservationists, are counter-productive. For selfish reasons of national pride, a new generation of Japanese needs to grow and internalize a conservation ethic from within. Helping that happen may include well-nuanced criticism from outside, but a more constructive and friendly dialogue with forward thinking younger people coming of age in Japan is critically needed. (On that last point the same is true-in spades – with regard to markets for wildlife in China.)
One final point. I’ve heard a lot about Americans and other foreigners attacking Japan’s food culture. That’s nonsense. I know of not one single conservation organization that is “against” sushi. Most of us love it, actually, though I’m very selective in what sushi I order. But I’d like to point out that I grew up on a coast – Long Island, New York – with no sushi restaurants and a lot of tuna. We caught so many bluefin tuna that I sometimes gave a couple away at the dock. I gave a lot of bluefin steaks to friends. And we used to have big tuna barbecues and sashimi parties at my house.
Then the buyers from Japan showed up at the docks, and the gold-rush lasted only a few years before the depletion was so drastic that we no longer bother to fish for tuna. The fishing is usually terrible. And it’s too sad.
So we used to have no sushi restaurants and plenty of tuna to catch, and now we have a lot of sushi restaurants and essentially no tuna. Japan took most of the tuna out of our ocean, flew them across North America and across the Pacific, and ate them. As far as whose culture has hurt whose, ours took the biggest hit, by far.