Osashiburi! Long time no see; it’s nice to be back.
I apologize for my unannounced and prolonged absence from this blog. Real life caught up with me and I was forced to de-prioritize this project in favor of any number of other obligations. I’m happy to say, however, that from this point forward, sustainablesushi.net is back in business.
There’s all sorts of interesting news on the eco-sushi front that took place while I was napping, so I’m a bit behind the 8-ball right now. That said, I have a slew of posts and articles coming this way in the next few months, so we should be in good shape relatively soon.
There are a few items that I should mention:
At least for the time being, this blog will no longer have a regular update schedule (as if it ever did.) Articles will materialize here as is feasible and appropriate. For regular readers, I highly suggest using the RSS feed so you are alerted when there is a new post. You can subscribe to the RSS feed by clicking on the RSS button that appears at the top of a post page – just click on the headline of an any blog post and go from there.
Yeah, well, at least it makes things easier to find
There will be some interesting cross-posting and guest posting. Some of the key media outlets participating in this project include alternet.org, markbittman.com, greenpeace.org, and others. I’m excited to start this new venture and I hope you all enjoy it as well.
There’s a big serial piece coming your way. I’m not sure when it will drop – it’s a long one and I still have quite a bit of work to do on it – but it’ll happen eventually. It has to do with a recent two-week journey that Chef Hajime Sato and I took through Japan.
4) Even though the blog was down for the past several months, the individual fish recommendations are all still up to date as far as I know. There are some big updates coming soon, though, so stay tuned.
That... took... forever
I am sure that some of my readership has moved on during my absence, and I appreciate those of you who stuck around long enough to be reading this post now. As always, I appreciate your comments and suggestions more than you know and would love to hear any ideas or thoughts you may have about how to keep this website interesting, informative, and enjoyable.
There were any number of reasons for my delay in writing this. March was a busy month for sure: the resurgence of competing priorities, such as working towards the successful end of Greenpeace’s Trader Joe’s campaign, certainly did their part in keeping me away from this blog. The Boston Seafood Show and related pandemonium was no help either. But to be honest, the main reason that I haven’t written is much simpler than that.
I have spent the last few weeks seething over the unconscionable actions of the Japanese delegation. CITES wasn’t even about coming together and discussing the real issues – frankly, it never got that far. Riding in on a horse of flame and bluster (earlier that week, the Japanese government had stated that “even if the bluefin were awarded CITES protection, the Japanese would ignore it,”) a fifty-strong group of delegates from Tokyo stormed the meeting, bullying and coercing smaller nations into supporting their myopic, arrogant agenda. And the cherry on top of this bloody sundae? The Japanese delegation hosted a dinner during CITES to discuss this issue, at which they had the audacity to serve – you guessed it – bluefin tuna.
Am I the only one appalled by this unbridled hubris?
Citizens of Earth – our leaders have failed us. Miserably. So what do we do?
No port in a storm
Although it may not seem like it from the title of this post, I’m still not ready to take the bluefin’s death certificate to the local notary public. We do have a slight glimmer of hope here in the USA.
The western population of the Northern bluefin tuna spawns in a small area in the Gulf of Mexico, much of which is located within US waters. Even if we can’t yet regulate international commerce, we can still do our part to protect these bedeviled creatures while they are visiting our coastline.
Targeted bluefin fishing in the aforementioned spawning grounds has been forbidden (under ICCAT, believe it or not) since the 1980s. Still, that doesn’t stop fishermen from targeting other species – mainly swordfish and yellowfin tuna – in those areas, and bluefin bycatch is a serious problem. Hundreds of spawning animals are killed every year by longliners that are operating in these areas.
Not in our waters
It is within our power to rectify this situation. If the US government bans the use of longline fishing gear within the spawning grounds, it will drastically reduce the overall bluefin bycatch rate in the Gulf and allow more fish the opportunity to reproduce. This is one way that we can bolster the population while we continue to push for the international management that the bluefin so sorely needs.
In an age and state where the word “patriotism” has been misinterpreted, manipulated, maligned, and mangled beyond recognition, it is often difficult to discern not only what it means to be patriotic, but what it means to be an American. In my experience, it is only on a rare day that it becomes unnecessary to differentiate between vying definitions – nationalistic pride, support of entrenched policies, endorsement of governmental shift, facebook-friendship of standing politicians, etc. – before I can state without equivocation that I am proud to be an American.
This is a game-changer. The world’s largest economy has finally weighed in on one of the most pressing issues facing the ocean conservation movement – the simple fact that commercially exploited fish have thus far been utterly ignored by the institutionalized international processes designed to offer respite to endangered species. The Northern bluefin tuna, decimated by the rapacity of the global sushi industry and of bluefin traders like the Mitsubishi corporation, has hitherto been largely ignored by the world’s protectionary bodies in favor of ICCAT, a malfunctioning, incoherent (mis)management system that has brought the bluefin to the brink of the abyss… but perhaps this is finally at an end.
The United States government’s role in this ecological chess match is unique. Even though US economy does not have a significant share of the world’s bluefin production, it does constitute a sizable share of overall consumption. Certainly it is not on a scale to match Japan (the world’s foremost consumer of bluefin, devouring approximately 80% of all bluefin tuna yanked from our ailing oceans) but the US sushi industry has exploded in recent years, bringing with it a skyrocketing demand for bluefin tuna. Many of the world’s most well-known sushi icons are based in the United States, and there is no shortage of American consumers willing to shell out fat stacks of greenbacks for the ephemeral bliss of a two-bite communion with Our Lady of O-toro. As such, the US is more than just a global economic engine in this scenario. The conviction of the Obama administration to stand behind Monaco’s proposal is a food policy statement – an admission that as we as a global community grow, we need to begin to make difficult choices, and that desire and wealth can no longer stand alone as the market mechanisms that drive our luxury food supply. We must begin to temper them with an awareness of the impacts our choices have on our environment.
Not on his watch
Certainly this is not the end of the struggle. Whether or not the bluefin will receive the support and protection it requires will be decided by a conference of all CITES parties in Doha, Qatar, later this month – and it will likely be a bloody affair. Japan vehemently opposes the proposal and is expected to break out every weapon in its considerable arsenal in defense of its hard-line position. China, too, has announced its opposition to the listing. Support for the proposal within the European Union is tenuous at best and could still sour. Many other countries, such as Australia (which has a bluefin industry of its own, albeit a different stock and species), New Zealand, and Brazil remain on the fence. There is still a great deal of work to do.
So while the champagne moment is yet to come, I would suggest making some room in the fridge to chill a bottle or two. The support of the Obama administration was an absolute necessity if the bluefin is to survive the CITES gauntlet, and with it secured, there may just be some hope for the world’s most expensive fish – and, symbolically, for the oceans themselves – after all.
There is no doubt that Japanese illegal whaling is a problem. How and why it is a problem varies depending on your perspective, but the simple fact that something is rotten in the Southern Ocean is beyond debate. Whales are having their brains blown apart because of political pigheadedness, anti-whaling activists are causing tremendous economic harm to the whaling fleet, the government in Tokyo is losing face, Japanese taxpayers are wasting their hard-earned money, and sailors and whalers alike are being put in mortal danger by the high-pressure water hoses, butyric acid (which, incidentally, is not strong enough to “burn” anything), long-range acoustic weapons, and other offensive contraptions regularly used in these whale wars (wait — can I say that? Did I violate something?)
Anyhow, it is in everyone’s interest that action is taken to remedy this situation and restore some semblance of order to those frigid, choppy seas. In fact, Kevin Rudd – Prime Minister of Australia, the country in whose waters (as much as Antarctic waters belong to anyone) most of the mayhem occurs – has recently served the Japanese with an ultimatum: cease all whaling in the Southern Ocean by November of 2010, or face a lawsuit at the International Court of Justice. New Zealand, too, has vowed to support Australia’s challenge.
Whale, schmale... I want a new Lexus
The International Whaling Commission (IWC), a multilateral organization tasked with “managing” whale stocks, has proven to be relatively ineffectual. This is largely due to a voting structure that is quite conducive to electoral fraud. Rich countries are able to bribe tiny nations that have no interest in whaling one way or the other, and since population has no bearing in the IWC – Brazil, for example, has the same weight as Barbados – large, wealthy nations with a vested interest in the outcome of the vote can easily sway things their way with some well-placed deposits.
Since the IWC can’t manage to do its job, it has created a “support group” tasked with finding a way to tame this bugbear. Unfortunately, this support group’s plan – known as the Maquieira Plan after Christian Maquieira, the Chairman of the IWC and the mastermind behind this proposal – is just about the worst possible way to deal with this issue.
How do we solve the problems created by the Japanese scientific whaling program? Maquieira’s answer is simple: we legalize whaling.
I’ll say that again. Japan is illegally killing whales, so we solve that problem by… making it legal to kill whales.
Basically, the Plan proposes that the scientific whaling proviso – by which Japan lamely justifies its whaling enterprise – be stripped from the management regulations set by the IWC, but in exchange, the global moratorium on commercial whaling will be lifted, and those countries that currently hunt whales (Japan, Norway, and Iceland – the three problem-child states that have brazenly defied the rest of the universe for the last twenty-eight years and have continued to kill whales regardless of international law and public opinion) will be awarded kill quotas for at least the next ten years.
The quotas themselves have not yet been set, but they will include minke, humpback, and endangered fin whales — just like the ones that are currently being hunted. So basically, Chairman Maquieira’s eponymous plan is palm-meets-forehead moronic because it does absolutely nothing. It is also palm-meets-forehead brilliant, however, as it makes the reprehensible actions of the Japanese fleet legal, and thus no further “illegal activity” will be taking place in the Southern Ocean. Problem solved!
Telling it like it isn't
Maquieria’s Plan is not about saving whales. It’s about helping governments save face, and giving the policymakers in Tokyo a way out of this mess at the expense of the planet. Sure, there’s still blood in the water… and we’ll still have warehouses full of unwanted whale meat… and Japanese tax dollars will continue to fund an anachronistic, backwards industry… but hey, at least the politicians get to retain their pride, right?
Thankfully, no one has been fooled by this laughable piece of idiocy. Canberra roundly rejected the Plan and reiterated Rudd’s ultimatum. Moreover, environmental groups like Greenpeace have pulled no punches in calling it out as the absolute waste of paper that it is.
Whaling in the Southern Ocean is illegal for a reason — it is an unsustainable and environmentally devastating enterprise. Solving the problem of illegal whaling by legalizing it is like trying to reduce the rate of gun-related homicide by stabbing everyone to death.
We will end illegal whaling. We will do it, though, by saving whales – not by saving politicians.
Still, it takes long hours spent in darkness to appreciate the light of dawn. Thanks to an unforeseen twist of fate — including an ironic change of heart by France’s President Sarkozy, who, a few months ago, would have seen the fish hunted to oblivion — I’m thrilled to finally be able to report a positive turn of events chez bluefin.
Now, the important thing to remember here is that the European Parliament does not in fact have the power to make this kind of decision. According to the mind-numbing morass of legislation that makes up the Gordian bureaucracy of the European Union, this resolution by the Parliament is in fact a recommendation to the Council of the European Union, a separate legislative body representing the same countries that will vote to either reject the proposal or to formalize the EU’s support of the ban.
And it doesn’t end there.
Doha: the bluefin's last stand?
Europe can’t do this by itself. The plan is to award the Northern bluefin this protection under the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), an international body tasked with restricting the trade of key species in order to protect endangered populations. The next CITES meeting will take place in mid-March in Doha, Qatar, and is expected to be well attended.
Protections under CITES are awarded via a majority vote of participating nations. The EU votes as a bloc at CITES, but there are many other countries as well that also all receive a vote. One of these countries is Japan.
Japan is expected to vehemently oppose any proposal that would restrict its ability to source the exorbitantly valuable Northern bluefin tuna from the withered stocks of the North Atlantic and Mediterranean. No doubt Tokyo’s resolute determination is far more galvanized than the shaky compromise arising amidst grumbles and groans in Brussels. In fact, even if this clumsy amalgamation of European agendas — including those of Greece, Spain, and Malta, which are very unhappy with the idea of protecting the bluefin tuna — avoids strangling itself with red tape long enough for the EU to vote to protect this imperiled animal, we will still have our work cut out for us. Japan is an influential power at CITES, and will likely pull out all the stops in order to ward off what would be both an powerful symbolic precedent (the first time a commercially important pelagic fish has been awarded CITES protection) and a significant blow to the global bluefin industry (an enterprise controlled largely by the Japanese zaibatsuMitsubishi.)
Now is the time to change that. The European Union’s support for this trade ban is tenuous at best and could fall apart at any moment due to short-sited interests within Mediterranean member countries. Still, the EU’s parliamentary vote was unexpectedly positive and offers us an unprecedented chance to strike a powerful blow for the sake of a future buoyed by healthy, productive oceans.
It’s not every day that we can stand up, raise our voices, and save an endangered species. Today we can. President Obama — this is our chance. Do the right thing.
As the last few heartbeats of the year 2009 fade away, it is natural to take stock of how far we have come. It’s important to recognize our victories, as well as to isolate and examine our shortcomings. After all, there’s certainly no need to make the same mistakes again in 2010.
I’m also happy to say that it was Sustainable Sushi‘s first birthday at some point in the last few weeks. Over this past year, this website has afforded me with the opportunity not only to explore many fascinating issues, but to discuss them with people commenting from all across the globe. It has been a wonderful experience, and I thank you all so very much for helping to make it happen.
So, 2009: a tumultuous year by any standard. The oceans have had a tough time of it, but in other ways, we’ve achieved more than we could have possibly hoped for.
There have been times over the past twelve months when things have seemed bleak. It is beyond debate that the oceans took some major blows this year, and some of the ominous clouds on the horizon have grown even darker:
At the same time, we’ve seen some incredible successes this year. All across the planet, people stood up for the oceans, bringing their passion for a better planet with them as they cooked, shopped, wrote, worked and marched:
The End of the Line, a documentary on overfishing and the state of the world’s oceans, was released. This led to increased pressure on Nobu restaurant to discontinue the sale of endangered Northern bluefin. This momentum manifest in celebrity petitions, dozens of articles in trade and mainstream press, and a Greenpeace campaign.
The Cove, a shocking documentary about the Taiji dolphin slaughter, was released worldwide. Broome, Australia, discontinued its sister-city relationship with Taiji over the fiasco. Taiji has temporarily halted its dolphin drive, but other communities in Japan continue to hunt dolphins. The Cove has even been nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Documentary.”
2009 marked the first year in a world beyond the grindadrap: the annual Faeroese pilot whale drive that had caused much consternation among environmentalists. In response to warnings by their chief medical advisors, the Faeroese practice of slaughtering pilot whales and distributing the meat throughout the community was halted permanently in November of 2008.
The majority of these positive changes are part of a greater pattern: an accelerating increase in our overall awareness of the problems faced by our oceans. Movies, magazine articles, and activist campaigns have brought the health of our fisheries to the headlines and to the tips of our tongues. The amount of conversations we are having at coffee shops, in grocery stores, and around backyard barbecues about seafood sustainability and environmentally responsible fish consumption has never been higher – and rising faster than ever before.
The single most powerful and meaningful thing that happened to our oceans this year is that we truly began to wake up to the truth of what we are doing to our planet. We are more aware. We are more alert. And we are much more energized and focused.
Hundreds of new ocean activists are standing up every day to make a difference. Maybe they write a check, or they buy a different kind of fish, or they have a conversation with a chef or grocer. Maybe they simply have coffee with a good friend and spread the word. It doesn’t matter – it all helps. Every day we come closer to achieving critical mass, a fully realized awareness that will mobilize our true potential to save our oceans.
A brave new world
So let’s make 2010 the year that we redouble our efforts. It is time to capitalize on our momentum and push even harder, accomplish even more for the sake of planet and our future. There is still a tremendous amount of work to do, but make no mistake: we are stronger than the forces that would hold us back. And on those particularly gloomy days, when bad news comes crashing down and the future looks insurmountably bleak, just remember: you are not alone. We’re all in this together – you, me, and the millions of other people that are out there fighting every single day, working to make this world a better place for all of us.
Sometimes when I sit down to write one of these posts, I get a sort of melancholy déjà vu. So many of the problems that plague our oceans stem from the same root causes; it’s almost like writing the same article over and over again. Avarice, financial myopia, cultural misunderstandings, and apathetic complacency are frustratingly ubiquitous when we try to decipher and disassemble the tangled, parasitic relationship that we’ve developed with our oceans.
It also seems like every time we start digging into ocean conservation issues anywhere on the planet, we find ourselves up against the same culprits: a small clique of nations that have taken to fishing in a serious way. I suppose this is logical given the total consumption (as well as the per capita consumption) of seafood in these particular countries: they are the source of a tremendous share of the world’s seafood demand, and thus have a vested interest in access the supply freely and without interference from other parties. Still, one would think that their respective decision makers would understand that in order to have fish tomorrow, we have to take proper care of the fish today…. right?
There was a great hope that much could be achieved at this meeting. Scores of artisanal fishermen teamed up with local and international NGOs in any number of demonstrations to drive home the fact that these animals are in need of protection. The Pacific is the last ocean with bigeye tuna populations anywhere near healthy levels, and it was made clear that unless stringent and effective quotas are implemented — in conjunction with new closures and off-limits areas — we may lose this stock as well.
Catch us if you can
As I discussed in a previous series of posts, a great deal of the Pacific bigeye stock is taken as bycatch by seiners that are seeking skipjack tuna. In the Western and Central Pacific, these seiners tend to operate in what are known as “donut holes” or “high seas pockets”: areas of ocean that are surrounded by the territorial waters of various countries but are just beyond the 200-mile exclusive economic zone of any of them. Seining was banned in two of the four major pockets in the Pacific Ocean during the WCPFC meeting in 2008, and most of the Pacific island nations were hoping to seal the deal and protect the remaining two this year.
Alas. Enter the usual suspects.
There are three key states that have a long-standing track record of blocking this kind of progress in the Pacific: South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. These countries tend to work as a bloc to forestall regulatory measures that would preclude their fleets from plundering the Pacific at will. Lamentably, this meeting proved to be no exception.
To add insult to injury, I should note that it was actually the Japanese that raised the issue about tuna welfare in the first place. The Japanese delegation went on record early in the meeting stating that no other tuna species can be allowed to decline to the point of meeting the CITESAppendix I criteria, as the northern bluefin does (this was, by the way, the first time that the Japanese government has admitted that northern bluefin qualifies for CITES protection.) Japan also expressed concern over the state of sharks, especially hammerheads, in the Pacific. This is good news, right? The largest per capita seafood consumer in the world standing up for the oceans?
Well, a couple of days later, they reversed their stance, blocked all precautionary proposals and quota reductions, and ensured that bigeye and yellowfin tuna continue on the fast track to endangered species land. Thanks guys.
Yeah... like an impoverished puppy
To be fair, there’s really no room for any kind of flag-waving on my part. The US delegation actually arrived at the meeting planning to oppose these precautionary measures as well. In the end they were persuaded to abstain from the vote, but still, hardly a pride-inducing course of action.
The presence of a new and woefully inexperienced chairman did not help matters. At one point, when one of the delegations raised concerns about the state of porbeagle sharks in the Pacific, the chairman was quoted as saying, “What? What’s a pork barrel shark?”
Yeah. I’m not kidding.
Catch of the day
In the end, it pretty much all fell apart. Despite strong efforts from France, Australia, numerous Pacific island nations, Greenpeace, and several local environmental groups, the meeting ended not with a bang, but with a whimper. Two enormous high seas pockets remain open to purse seiners that regularly take large quantities of juvenile bigeye. Sharks and tuna are still without succor, their diminishing populations at the mercy of relentless longliners.
Still… there’s gotta be a silver lining here somewhere. Hang on, I’ll find something…
Oh, yeah. Here we go.
This miserable outcome has upset many of these Pacific island states to no end. In fact, it may lead renegotiation of access agreements by these tiny countries: if the WCPFC can’t effectively protect these delicate fisheries, the Pacific island governments may just have to go it alone. They’re even talking about withdrawing from the Commission if it can’t serve it’s purpose, and relying on bilateral negotiation in an attempt to keep these foreign fleets out of their waters.
Wait a minute — that’s it? That’s the silver lining? We’re finding our solace in the breakdown of an attempted multinational management body in favor of a clutch of one-off two-party agreements of dubious strength and effectiveness? In an emergency backpedaling in the face of failure? In the inability of key stakeholder countries to see the writing on the wall and to take the simple, logical action necessary to protect their economy, environment, and children?
Wow. Whatever’s happening in Copenhagen right now must be contagious.
Last week, the black-hulled Nisshin Maru, public enemy number one of ocean worshipers around the globe, steamed out of an oddly quiet Japanese harbor. While traditionally its departure has been the cause of much revelry in the local port of Inoshima, this year saw no fanfare, no sendoff ceremony, no parades – just a shame-steeped ship, skulking southward, bound for the icy waters of the Southern Ocean.
Yes, it’s that wonderful time of year again, the season when the Japanese whaling fleet descends upon the Antarctic whale sanctuary and slaughters hundreds of peaceful cetaceans in the name of research. The scientific papers drawing from this annual festival of brutality are not publicly released, but the Japanese government is unequivocal in stating that these mysterious and inconclusive studies are a more than valid reason to massacre over a thousand whales each year. It is odd, however, that no other country engaging in cetacean research seems to need to butcher these animals in order to learn about their habits, behavior, social networks, and physiology. Strange.
Anyhow, the Nisshin Maru and its sidekick fleet of spotter boats and kill ships return to the Antarctic every year to revisit their dubious mission of butchering whales in the name of science. These ships were designed for one purpose, and one purpose only — the wholesale destruction of cetacean life. The Nisshin Maru in particular is equipped with all facilities necessary to completely disassemble a perfectly functional minke, humpback, or fin whale.
Once the whale has been speared with an explosive harpoon by one of the kill ships, it is transferred to the Nisshin, whereupon it is hauled up onto the deck. A team of specialists eviscerates the whale right then and there, all the while holding up signs with asinine messages like “We are conducting scientific research,” just in case there’s a Greenpeace or Sea Shepherd helicopter around.
Don't worry -- they're scientists
The whalers transform the carcass into hundreds of bricks of whale meat, which are then frozen in a specially designed refrigeration unit. The ship rinses and repeats, and when it has fulfilled its quota, it transports its illicit gains over seven thousand miles of ocean, from the Antarctic coast back to Japan. Minus the infinitesimal percentage claimed by the scientific research program, the whale meat is either sold on the open market or purchased and held in deep storage by various appendages of the Japanese government.
It’s difficult for many Americans, Australians, and Europeans to not see whaling as an inherently evil activity. Numerous western cultures have a sort of reverence for these gentle giants. We admire their playful, intelligent nature, and spend our hard-earned dollars to head out to sea in little skiffs in the hope of seeing one or two whales breach nearby, sending small geysers of mucus and salt water skyward as they break the surface.
Why are you picking on me?
Still, it’s important to realize that this respect for whales is both cultural and recent. The United States was a major whaling nation up until the early 20th century, and some would argue that just because we Americans have some new-found appreciation for these animals doesn’t mean that there’s any kind of intrinsic reason why a whale merits more consideration than, say, a hagfish.
It’s in this spirit of equality that many Japanese, as well as numerous residents of other whaling nations such as Iceland and Norway, see these animals. There’s nothing special about a whale that disqualifies it from being dinner. What is the difference, one might ask, between a whale and some big fish?
I mean, well, yeah, sure, they’ve got lungs, and a complex evolutionary history, and an intricate social network… oh, and faculties for speech and song, and a larger cranial capacity than humans, and even a fourth cerebral lobe that’s unique to cetaceans, the purpose of which we haven’t even begun to understand… but besides all that, what’s the difference?
So bear with me for a moment and let’s assume that there is no inherent reason why whales merit more respect than any other life-form. Is that reason enough let the Japanese whaling industry off the hook?
Maybe if I have a half-off sale...
Well, no. See, we still have to contend with the fact that whale meat has been falling out of favor in Japan for decades, and that the government uses tax revenue to subsidize not only its production, but the consumption of whale meat as well. Moreover, Tokyo has been implicated in any number of vote-buying scandals at the International Whaling Commission, which has caused even more humiliation for the Japanese leadership. So why do they do it? The scientific excuse is as bogus as they come, and even the strict economic argument makes no sense when the losses are put alongside the gains. What’s the reasoning here?
The fact is that behind the sham of scientific research and beyond the crude excuse of simple profit lies a deeper truth, a miasma of old neuroses and insecurities that bedevil anti-whaling efforts and lash the albatross of this anachronistic industry to the necks of the Japanese leadership. The awful truth of the matter is that whaling has virtually nothing to do with whales. In fact, whaling is more about all the other animals swimming in the ocean – especially tuna.
Mouths to feed
We’ve already established that a fishing nation may or may not discriminate between whales and fish based on its cultural value system. If said nation does not do so, then a whale is, for all intents and purposes, a very big fish. With that in mind, consider the following:
Japan is an extremely densely populated island nation, with nearly 200 million people in an area the size of the state of California. It has little arable land and traditionally takes the lion’s share of its protein from the ocean. Japan is also wealthy nation with a strong middle class, as well as the world’s largest consumer of seafood per capita. A tremendous amount of Japanese GDP is reliant on the seafood industry due to unflagging consumer demand. As such, Japanese companies must be able to access oceanic resources with as little interference as possible.
Without a cultural reason to discriminate between whales and fish, Japanese leadership can easily interpret multinational opposition to whaling as a precursor to similar efforts that would address other, more valuable (and more endangered) species – such as bluefin tuna. The Japanese bluefin tuna complex is a massive global enterprise worth billions of dollars, and it dwarfs the whaling industry by orders of magnitude.
A whale-heavy Diet
Efforts to protect or manage whale stocks are therefore seen as the ominous foreshadowing of a world where Japanese fleets wouldn’t necessarily be free to ransack the oceans as they pleased. This idyllic vision is, of course, anathema to the policymakers in Tokyo.
Add this to the fact that the men in power (and it is men, overwhelmingly) in the Diet are the same who spent their formative years in the unfortunate era just after World War II where food security really was an issue in Japan. People were starving in the streets; Japan’s infrastructure and traditional social networks had been eradicated by the twin tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was at this point that the American occupational force introduced large-scale whaling to the Japanese as a manner of providing protein to the hungry. Whale meat was used in school lunches, government meal programs, and other subsidized institutions. One could argue that at the time, the consumption of whale meat actually helped to beat back starvation and to invigorate a populace that was in the grip of malnutrition.
But that was then. This is now, and the Japanese are healthy and wealthy. Whales aren’t important anymore. The principles of sovereignty and food security, however, still are.
Thou shalt not cross
So a line is drawn in the sand. The Japanese government will fight the battle here, with whales, so no precedent is set for tuna, or for eel, or for crabs and urchin. Never again shall Japan face the humiliation of starvation, and never shall the outside world again be allowed to interfere with Japan’s sovereign right to exploit the oceans in order to feed its people. And if a few whales have to die in order to protect this status quo, well, so be it. Right?
This is unacceptable. Whales are dying, and I’m not objecting because I think whales are special, or because I think that the Japanese need to be more like Americans, or anything like that. This is not a racial issue, so anyone who’s planning to come at me with some bogus “you’re a racist” argument, just give it up right now. It’s a contrived, tangential distraction, and you know it. (Seriously. I’m a sushi blogger, for God’s sake.)
No, I object because these whales are being slaughtered simply to fuel a political pissing contest that has nothing to do with them. They don’t die in the name of science, or cultural preservation, or even the dollar and the yen. No, these whales die to appease a small group of powerful old men, riddled with insecurities, whose fear of economic disenfranchisement and aversion to political humiliation is apparently more important than the lives of these magnificent animals. They die so the Japanese government can continue to deny the fact that if we’re all going to live on this planet, and if we’re going to save the ocean, we’re going to have to work together.
Have you ever seen one of those high-budget crime flicks where a bunch of slick dudes go out and rob a bank?
It starts with a group of chiseled Hollywood 30-somethings cocooned in tailored suits, driving fancy cars and armed with enough sexy crime tech to make even the most jaded geek swoon. There’s the compulsory uber-coolness sequence where they’re slow-motion strutting out of a building, all wearing expensive shades and silk ties, oozing style. Then there’s the heist scene, a spitfire collage of action shots and staccato sound effects that raises your heart rate and stretches your eyelids up past your forehead. Finally, the smoke clears on an empty bank vault, with a bunch of bumbling police officers looking at one another in confusion, and their mustachioed, hard-boiled lieutenant staring into the middle distance, clenching his jaw in impotent fury.
Invariably, these smooth criminals now need to liquidate their ill-gotten gains so they can flee to some non-extradition paradise festooned with string bikinis and mai tai umbrellas. Problem is, the cash is easily traceable – so they go for something else.
Bearer bonds. Raw diamonds. Postage stamps. They find one of those funny ways to steal money that won’t get them reeled in by Interpol or by some twitchy, obsessive FBI agent that has willfully exceeded his jurisdiction in order to bring his better-looking, cooler, and smarter nemeses to justice. Finally, there’s the scene at the bar of the expensive resort in Montenegro or Caracas, where the government agent sidles up to the criminal and informs him that sure, he’s out of his jurisdiction, but he knows what’s going on and will make sure that so-and-so suffers for his misdeeds….
That's the stuff
… sorry, I’m digressing. I meant to stop at the point where I said “bearer bonds.”
The reason I’m bringing this up is because there’s a point of commonality here between this stamped cellulose lucre and much of the fish that one can find everyday at the local sushi bar. Both are, for the purposes of everyday commerce, untraceable.
Much of the seafood swirling about the sushi industry chain of custody is “black box” fish. It passes through so many hands, is processed and repackaged so many times, and languishes in the bellies of so many cargo planes that its history is lost. Discerning where the fish is actually from becomes an impossible task. When they’ve finally finished ricocheting around the planet, these poor animals have accumulated enough frequent flyer miles to upgrade to first class on that final trip to your dinner plate.
Living in the present
International labeling laws tend to make things even worse. Generally, a fish product is only required to list the last point at which there was value-addition (a change in formatting – repackaging, processing, cooking, etc.) This process wipes out and redrafts the history of the fish as if it were on etch-a-sketch in the hands of a kindergartener with ADHD.
Thus do we have fish landing on sushi counters without any indication of their checkered pasts. A good example is the ubiquitous tako, the mottled purple octopus whose severed tentacles adorn sushi bars across the planet.
This precise Japanese term for this species of octopus (Octopus vulgaris) is madako, or “true octopus.” This multi-limbed wonder is caught all over the world, but some of the most productive fishing is traditionally done off the coast of North Africa in Moroccan, Mauritanian, and Senegalese waters.
Swimming towards ignominy
The problem here (beyond the fact that this octopus is largely bottom trawled from flagging populations with little management) is that the world’s tako chain of custody bottlenecks in Japan. Octopus is not simply yanked out of the water to be immediately slapped down on a sushi bar, as is the case with numerous other fish. Rather, octopus has to be properly blanched, seasoned, and packaged for travel. This takes place in Japan, where there is an entire industry based around octopus processing. The world’s octopus trawl fleets capture the animals, kill them, and ship them off to Japan where they are all mixed together in enormous processing facilities. The octopus is prepared for use in sushi through a method that involves hot water, vinegar, and copious amounts of plastic. This process strips each octopus of its individuality, creating an amorphous melange of tentacles that is then re-exported and disseminated to sushi bars throughout the world, bearing stickers that read: “Product of Japan.”
But it’s not really from Japan, is it? And by the time it arrives in the United States, neither the broker who imported the octopus, the seafood distributor who trucked it to a restaurant, nor the chef who chopped it up for a salivating sushi fan is able to trace it to its source. Any knowledge of original home of the octopus has been lost, wiped from history as cleanly as a child’s carefree sand scrawls are erased by a rising tide.
So if we need to know the original source of the fish to determine stock status and management rigor, and we need to know about stocks and management to determine the sustainability of a given seafood option, how do we deal with tako and other black box products? How can we make educated choices to promote sustainable fisheries if we can’t even tell where the fish is from?
This is the curse of the black box. It is a general dearth of information at the final point of sale that is enabled by ineffective trade protocol and labeling laws. It is a black hole languishing in the center of the world of seafood, drawing shipping receipts, landing logs, and other data into its gravity well, engaged in a perpetual implosion that disposes of fact and history more efficiently than an armada of paper shredders set upon the National Archives.
It falls upon us to apply the precautionary principle in these situations. If we cannot adequately defend a hypothesis stating that the dish is a sustainable option, we must assume the opposite. A precautionary approach to our marine resources will allow us to protect our planet by giving our oceans, rather than the fishing industry, the benefit of the doubt. This is how we avenge the dodo.
Below is a non-exhaustive list of sushi items that commonly fall into the black box:
Processing bottlenecks, weakness in labeling, and IUU (pirate) fishing all contribute to the strength and volume of the black box. Consumer patronage of black box seafood has an extremely detrimental impact on our oceans. Please exercise extreme caution when considering any of the above options at the sushi bar.
One of the most important things that we can do for the planet this weekend is as simple as treating ourselves to a movie.
The United States is dotted with parks and facilities that ostensibly exist to celebrate the beauty of the ocean and its inhabitants. While I won’t name names, I’m talking about those grandiose, concrete-bunker tourist abominations that allow patrons contrived splash-zone experiences with kidnapped cetaceans. Porpoises, dolphins, and even orca are included in these marine circus acts. We watch the animals leaping through hoops and frantically clicking for their daily mackerel fix, all the while remaining blissfully ignorant of how these animals came to arrive in their current situation.
There is a ghastly, bloodthirsty force behind this calliope-and-carousel facade: the dolphin capture industry. It operates in a small, hidden bay outside Taiji, Japan, and it has finally been exposed for the monstrosity that it is by Louis Psihoyos’ new crime flick-cum-documentary, The Cove.
Winner of numerous Audiences Awards around the world, including the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, Silver Docs and Hot Docs, The Cove follows an Ocean’s Eleven-style team of underwater sound and camera experts, special effects artists, marine explorers, adrenaline junkies and world-class free divers as they carry out an undercover operation to expose unspeakable cruelties that, in this tiny Japanese bay, have become a way of life.
Utilizing state-of-the art techniques, including hidden microphones and cameras couched in fake rocks, the team uncovers how this small seaside village serves as a horrifying microcosm of massive ecological crimes happening worldwide. The Cove is the result of the team’s journey to Taiji: a provocative mix of investigative journalism, eco-adventure and arresting imagery that adds up to an urgent plea for hope.
I urge all readers of this blog to see what the New York Times calls “one of the most audacious and perilous operations in the history of the conservation movement,” and what Rolling Stone describes as “a cross between Flipper and The Bourne Identity.”
Witness the truth behind dolphin captivity, and help us bring this reprehensible, barbaric industry to its knees.
For a complete listing of showtimes and locations, please click here.
In his talk, Trenor uses the topic of sustainable sushi to explore the connection between personal passion and effective activism. Trenor's perspective is that true change is not something which we can impose upon the world, but rather something which me must manifest in ourselves and allow it to be reflected in who we are and what we do.