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Mar. 11 2010 - 5:24 pm | 1,069 views | 4 recommendations | 19 comments

Your Moral Outrage at Whale Sushi is Unjustified

Whale Meat by paranoidnotandroid

Whale Meat for sale in Japan.

After being exposed during the Oscars by the producers of The Cove, whale-meat-selling Santa Monica sushi restaurant The Hump was charged late Wednesday by federal officials with violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act. If found guilty, Kiyoshiro Yamamoto, the owner of The Hump’s parent company faces $100,000 fine and up to a year in prison.

Considering the restaurant served up strips of endangered sei whale meat to federal informants in a neighborhood that’s self-consciously eco-conscious, you can pretty well bet Yamamoto & Co will be made an example of. Which is all well and good (they did break the law, after all), but you better wipe that morsel of moral superiority from your chin. I’m looking at you, L.A. Times editorial board. Truth is, you don’t have a leg (or fin) to stand on.

Don’t get me wrong, I think eating whale meat is pretty gross and I’m the kind of person who makes sweetbreads and sucks on bone marrow for fun, but any way you slice it, there’s nothing about serving whale meat that’s any less repugnant (if that’s your stand) than dining on any number of Nature’s astonishing creations.

Tasty & Intelligent

Tasty & Intelligent

Take the lowly octopus for example; a staple of not just Japanese cuisine, but most Mediterranean cuisines as well. If you have no problem eating salmon, chicken or beef, chances are, you’re just fine with eating octopus.

Problem is, octopi are one of the smartest creatures (besides, arguably ourselves) on the planet. Scientists have shown them to have a highly complex nervous system, complete with short and long-term memory, the ability to learn through observation and they are the only invertebrate known to use tools. They pick up coconut shells and carry them around to later use as shelters. Compared to an octopus, the sei whale is little more than a whistling bag of fat.

The Hump, Santa Monica

The Hump, Santa Monica

Of course, the octopus is not cute and beloved, so nobody raises the alarm and most octopus are not endangered. If the argument against eating whale meat is not that we’re killing an intelligent creature, but rather a rare one, we still have reason to pause, however.

After all, the U.S. permits Native Alaskans a small allotment of endangered seals to hunt each year, based on it being a part of their cultural history. Sure, there are a lot more Japanese businessmen then there are Eskimos, but whale meat and whale hunting is deeply rooted in Japanese culture.

Which is the whole point. Our national horror at eating whale meat isn’t based on any empirical truths, it’s just a cultural choice we make. Unless you’re a hardcore vegan, you’re making morally shaky decisions every day about what you decide to toss into your pie hole and what you won’t, which is why your outrage at another culture’s preference is ultimately little more than gastronomic nationalism.

After all, how would you feel if the Japanese told you to stop eating beef because the cattle industry is dumping 50 million metric tons of methane into the atmosphere per cow (UPDATE: As some of you pointed out, this is a total for all cattle, though it is still a hell of a lot) each year, which, even the biggest fans of Flipper would have to admit, is a hell of a lot worse than hunting down a bunch of admittedly adorable whales.


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  1. collapse expand

    “Compared to an octopus, the sei whale is little more than a whistling bag of fat.” – it’s going to take me an hour or so to recover my giggle control after reading that. Thanks for making hypocrisy so entertaining.

  2. collapse expand

    Yes, our laws are cultural artifacts, reflecting long-built up mores of the people who pass them. Stop the presses.

    However, comparing arcane Endangered Species Act exemptions carved out for a handfull of Eskimos vs. the mass sale of endangered whale meat in the heart of consumption central, U.S.A., seems quite (endangered) specious at best.

    As for octopi: Love the octopi, would like to have one for a pet, but can’t convince the partner to sink the $ for a massive tank. I like their look: it’s a good look.

  3. collapse expand

    The logic in this argument is rather appalling and misguided. People are not outraged at the consumption of whales just because they love whales; they are outraged because this is an endangered species with a global population of 54,000, and some restaurant owner decided one of those 54,000 should be offered up as a novelty dish for bored foodies. The argument you make is that since whales are animals, and we eat other animals, then we should eat whales (or at least be able to without feeling guilty or something to that effect.) In which case, there should be no concerns about eating dogs, cats and horses, if you want to extend this same line of thinking. But this is a straw-man argument that sidesteps the real issue, which is not people’s love of whales, which I suppose you think is irrational and silly, but people’s appreciation for biodiversity and for NOT killing off endangered species for the sake of novelty food items.

    • collapse expand

      Hi Andy-

      Thanks so much for writing in. I really enjoyed your comment. My point isn’t that I think it’s okay to eat the sei whale (I’m against it for many of the same reasons you are), but that demonizing, what is basically a longstanding Japanese cultural practice isn’t going to get you anywhere.

      My argument really has nothing to do with the ethics of eating animals, but rather that we ought to recognize that what we are ultimately talking about is not morality, but preference. You and I live in a culture that values endangered species and, to throw an example out there, has very little problem with keeping dairy cows in electric pens for most of their adult life.

      The Japanese look at the rarity of the whale as part of its appeal. At the same time, Japanese dairy cows live mostly on small farms, living happy semi-free range lives.

      So my question is, if you actually want to get the Japanese to stop whaling, how are you going to do it? So far, moral outrage hasn’t been very effective– I think, in part, because until we become a nation of vegans, we’re hardly in a position to be telling anyone what they can and can not eat.

      Instead, why not start on an even keel by admitting biases on both sides and working towards a solution. Certainly those hungry whale-eating businessmen have a stake in keeping the whales around.

      The nation’s that harvest whales have no intention of stopping and the only ones willing to force them to stop are loony environmentalists, so why not look for a compromise? Or at least, we can stop pretending we’re the moral authorities on the issue.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        I suppose what makes whales and cattle (to use your example) quite different is that whales can’t be effectively farmed, like cattle. I’m with you on admitting bias and working toward a solution, but with the population of whales declining so rapidly (or, at best, plateauing at a dangerously low number), I’m not sure there is a solution that doesn’t involve a moratorium on killing them. Maybe there is, but it’s not immediately obvious, and it isn’t obvious to people who have put much more time, energy or thought into it than either you or I.

        However, I’m all about eating the octopus, before they evolve into sharktopus.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        sorry, but arguing that eating whale is ok because it’s a longstanding cultural practice makes about as much sense as arguing that stoning your adulterous wife is ok in saudi arabia because it’s a longstanding cultural practice. just because something is a tradition doesn’t make it right.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    Curious how little outrage there is about Icelanders and Norwegians killing and eating marine mammals.

    Of course those are god-like Nordic people, rich in blonde hair and blue eyes.

    They couldn’t possibly be doing anything as shifty as some slant-eyed Japs now could they?

  5. collapse expand

    “50 million tons of methane per cow”? Did you even think for a second before you wrote that? Anything that comes out of a cow must have gone in, too, so you’re talking about a single cow eating at least 200,000 tons of food every single day.

    Does that seem right to you? That is, of course, assuming that literally all the cow’s food is converted to methane, when really it’s probably something like 10% of the food by weight. So, 2 million tons of food every single day, eaten by a single cow, to produce the numbers you’re talking about.

    There are an estimated 1.2 billion cattle, worldwide. 2 million tons of food every day means that the world’s cattle would be consuming 2.4 * 10^15 tons of food every day. By comparison the mass of Pluto is 1.3 * 10^19 tons.

    Or put another way – 50 million tons of methane from the world’s 1.2 billion cattle a year is 60 quadrillion tons. The mass of the Earth’s entire atmosphere is only 5 quadrillion tons. In other words, if what you say is true then in a single year of livestock agriculture, the Earth’s atmosphere should be entirely methane.

    • collapse expand

      Hey Justin-

      Click on the link in the article where I state the fact for a detailed explanation on the horrible truth about cows and methane. It’s shocking and a huge problem, but it’s also, absolutely true.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        I did click the article, and it gave absolutely no support for the claim whatsoever. It did say that a cow can produce up to 400 quarts of methane daily, that’s 378 liters. Methane (at STP) weighs 680 grams per cubic meter (that’s 1000 liters.) So, one cow produces 257 grams of methane every day. That’s only 93 kilograms of methane every year.

        One cow. 93 kilograms of methane every year. There’s no conceivable math where 400 quarts of methane a day results in 50 million tons of methane in a year.

        This is grade school mathematics, Japhy, combined with a few facts easily Googled. The idea that cows are eating Pluto every year and producing 30 times as much methane as the Earth has air is just completely stupid.

        93 kg of methane per year times 1.2 billion cows is a problem. (Methane’s atmospheric half-life is about seven years, compared to decades for CO2, but it’s still a significant greenhouse gas.) But you know what? Your apparent complete innumeracy is also a problem.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        I think I see the source of your confusion. You’re reading

        Each cow emits 200 to 400 quarts of methane gas per day, or 50 million metric tons per year.

        and you think that’s per cow. It’s not; 50 million tons is their figure for all cows. Not per cow, which is absurd.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  6. collapse expand

    You are making ridiculous, unfounded, Orientalist assumptions in this article. You need to do better research and educate yourself on a topic before you write an article about it, as you’ve made it very obvious you know nothing about Japanese culture. This is aside from the fact that your overarching argument is meaningless- nobody is arguing to protect sei whales because of their intelligence level, it’s becuase they’re endangered species that are integral components of marine ecosystems. You’re arguing against nothing- I don’t even think people think whales are cute, it’s just a highly visible issue.
    Regardless, what is extremely problematic about your argument is the Orientalist assumptions you make- octopus as a staple of Japanese cuisine? Do you know the meaning of the word staple? TRADITIONALLY, octopus was a delicacy, and though it’s widely available now for obvious reasons, it could hardly be considered a staple. Secondly, your treatment of preserving the “exotic” and “ancient” canons of Japanese culture that delicacies such as whale represent can only be described as ignorant. Japanese culture is pervasively Westernized and characteristically adaptable instead of focused on preserving cultural tradition- in fact, whaling did not penetrate the cultural consciousness of the Japanese until the late 19th century when the importation of WESTERN whaling techniques commercialized whaling to the point that it became widely acknowledged by the Japanese as a whole. Hence, there is nothing ancient or RITUALIZED about Japanese whaling- in fact, in terms of continuity, modern Japanese whaling has its origins in the commercial ventures of the late 19th century, not in the isolated whale-hunting in small fishing villages that occured before Japanese feudal regimes were even united under a single imperial regime. Therefore it is not analogous to native alaskan seal hunting in the least- if that were the case, the Japanese government would not be claiming research needs as their foremost argument for whaling rights, they would be pushing arguments similar to aboriginal rights exceptions. Therefore, the Japanese are certainly capable of letting go of a “venerated cultural tradition” that never existed in the first place. There is nothing cultural or traditional about modern whaling- it’s touted as a “scientific” project by the Japanese government, and is conducted as an economic, not a cultural, endeavor. You say so yourself that it’s BUSINESSMEN eating the whale- I don’t think these businessmen who are participating in a capitalist economy imported from the West, wearing WESTERN clothing that didn’t even become popularized until the 20th century, participating in a political and economic system dictated by a constitution written by AMERICANS, who probably eat bread and eggs for breakfast instead of rice and fish, have any qualms about giving up Japanese cultural traditions!! Which doesn’t even matter because whaling is not an important Japanese tradition!! Exoticizing Japan is just as ignorant and hypocritical as condemning whale consumption becuase of cultural biases.

  7. collapse expand

    Justin is quite right here. Let’s look at the data presented in that link and do some basic math.

    Assume a cow emits 400 quarts of methane a day (the high number quoted in that article). This works out to be about 140,000 liters per year per cow. At standard temperature and pressure, this is roughly 6000 moles of gas per year per cow, again rounding up. One mole of methane has a mass of 16 grams, so this means each cow emits roughly 100 kilograms of methane per year, or 0.1 metric tons.

    So the “50 million metric tons” number is clearly from *all* cows, and isn’t per cow. I’m not saying that this isn’t still a worrisome number, just that innumeracy doesn’t help the environmental cause any.

  8. collapse expand

    I think the key word here is ‘cultural’. Whale is an endangered species and eating it is not a part of our culture. It is understandable that it might be different in Japan -where it is cultural- just as a number of seals may be acceptable in Alaska due to their culture but not anywhere else in the U.S.
    We are culturally allergic to eating dogs and cats but we know there are cultures who feel differently.
    The Hump only made this available so that its wealthy clientele could feel they were getting a delicacy that others are not allow to have – thus the allure. I’ve eaten there a number of times. They are into high priced items.
    While we can’t tell other cultures what is right and wrong for them, we can begin by not leading our own down roads that are dangerous to endangered species.

  9. collapse expand

    A little off topic; but, talk about your endangered species controversies!?
    I am having trouble wrapping my head around this one:

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    I'm a web TV producer and journalist living in Los Angeles. I've written for Salon, Out, The New York Observer, The Advocate and have directed music videos for bands like Grizzly Bear, as well as creating ads for BCBG/ Max Azria.

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