Wednesday, February 03, 2010


Last week in Tokyo, I took out for dinner Karen Sack, the Director of the Pew Marine Programme after she'd just flown to Japan for the first time in her life.

The restaurant I'd thought I'd bring her to was full, and so were about ten others we tried in the area near our hotel. Finally we found one that was totally empty. We had no idea of what was on the menu because it was all written in Japanese (as you would expect in Tokyo), but we sat there and asked if they had an English or a picture menu. It was at that point we discovered it was a whale meat restaurant. We left (with delightful education), and ended up at the last available table of a restaurant I knew across the road, which serves delicious tofu dishes.

What's interesting about this anecdote is that the whale restaurant was the only one that was empty in the entire area. I think it was a good real-life confirmation of the fact that whale meat is not popular in Japan. As David McNeill, a Tokyo-based Irish journalist wrote recently in the UK's Independent newspaper, "although some middle-aged citizens remain fond of it, most youngsters would rather eat almost anything else". There are very few whale meat restaurants in Tokyo, and even so, on that busy outing night when I took Karen out, they were empty.

One of the first successful efforts of real international lobbying I'd ever taken a lead for was a push in the second half of the 1970s, to ban the import of whale products into France (that was before an EU-wide ban on whale products were enacted, and also before the Parties to the CITES Convention banned the international trade in whale products). The issue in France was not whale meat, but whale fat and sperm whale spermaceti imported and used at the time by the French cosmetic industry. During this recent stay in Tokyo, where I've enjoyed otherwise excellent Japanese cuisine as always, I've been thinking that it was a good thing the international trade in whale products was banned three decades ago. Because now, with the popularity Japanese cuisine enjoys all over the world, it is possible that whale meat could have become fashionable from Fifth Avenue to the Champs Elysées or Shangai, and as a result the pressure on whale populations (as well as vested interested against the protection of whales) would have increased proportionately.

Pretty much the same that is happening now to the Atlantic bluefin tuna endangered by the globalization of sushi. A lesson from the past the advocates of the ban on the international trade of Atlantic bluefin tuna proposed at next month's CITES conference should highlight.

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