All tangled up
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.
Are we still talking about this?
I’ve spent a good deal of sweat and ink venting about the ignominious state of the bluefin tuna. Overfishing and piracy has led to crashing populations across the globe. Abysmal mismanagement by the relevant regional fishery management organizations (RFMOs) such as the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) has allowed stocks to dwindle to tiny fractions of what they once were. If current trends continue, we will be bidding a final farewell to the noble bluefin in the very near future.
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.
Circle of power.. kind of
On February 10, the European Parliament confirmed its support for stricter protection of the Northern bluefin tuna. In a plenary session, the parliamentary members signaled their support for a ban on the trade of the critically endangered fish, as well as for financial compensation for those European fishermen affected by the decision.
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 zaibatsu Mitsubishi.)
Thus do we look to Obama.
What are you waiting for?
If we are to protect this fish, the United States must step up and stand with Europe. Washington has been deafeningly silent on this issue — before the last ICCAT meeting in Recife, Brazil, Jane Lubchenco stated that the US would turn to more drastic measures, such as CITES, should ICCAT fail again. ICCAT failed again. The US did nothing.
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.
A quick shout-out to all the journos and bloggers that have been covering the sustainable sushi issue in the past couple of months:
Massive gratitude to Allison and Son of Sushi Day for a trio of pieces covering the Mashiko launch in August (an overview of the event, an interview with Chef Hajime Sato, and an interview with me.) Thank you so much for your incredibly supportive and generous sentiments.
Patrick Robinson of the West Seattle Herald did a nice write-up of Eat Local Now!, a extremely well-attended Seattle event that included Chef Hajime of Mashiko and other local entrepreneurs.
Hajime was also recently featured on the Food Network’s Extreme Cuisine with Jeff Corwin, where he lovingly prepared a local Puget Sound delicacy — sea cucumber — for a squeamish host. I don’t yet have a link to a video clip, but will put one up as soon as I am able.
There’s little out there that excites me as much as the Japanese media’s growing interest in the sustainable sushi movement, and Dani Rippingale of the Tokyo Weekender has kick-started it with her excellent piece on the modern sushi industry and our dwindling resources.
Check out Peter Smith’s excellent article for the GOOD Blog highlighting ten people, projects, and ideas that are making a difference in the world of food — sustainable sushi is number one! Thanks Peter!
A heartfelt thank-you goes out to Bryan Walsh for including the founders of Tataki Sushi and Sake Bar (Kin Lui, Raymond Ho, and myself) in Time Magazine‘s Heroes of the Environment 2009. We are humbled and flattered beyond words.
The Chic Ecologist had a nice shout-out to sustainable sushi, especially to the work being done by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and their Seafood Watch program.
Chris Mikesell of the University of Hawaii has jumped into the sustainable sushi world head-first in his thorough investigation of sushi and tuna awareness in Hawaii. Great work.
Immediately after learning of the Time Magazine award, I was interviewed mid-gush by Jacqueline Church of the Leather District Gourmet, who was her usual wonderful self. Thanks Jackie for believing in us from the very beginning.
On the same note, one my my personal heroes, Eddie Kohan of Obamafoodorama threw us kudos as well in a congratulatory follow-up piece on her consistently poignant muck-raking website.
Fist-bumps to the newly bluefin-free Jane Black of the Washington Post for her insightful and provocative piece on sustainable sushi for Hemispheres, United Airlines’ in-flight magazine. Interviewees include Bamboo Sushi’s Brandon Hill and the lobster sex god Trevor Corson. I got a couple of words in as well. Best part is: I’m going to be flying on United in about a week, and I finally have a reason to be excited about getting on a plane.
The good people at the UTNE Reader picked up John Birdsall’s article on sustainable sushi (originally for Edible San Francisco) — they even gave it a byline on the cover of their 25 anniversary issue! UTNE’s Julie Hanus wrote an excellent supporting piece as well, with some great accolades for both Tataki and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Thanks!
Did I miss anyone? Do you know of a journalist or blogger that’s interested in this topic? Maybe a chef who’s pushing sustainable seafood on his or her menu? A sushi bar or grocery store that’s considering making the switch? Please let me know!
It’s wonderful to see all the ground that the sustainable sushi movement is gaining in the conventional media, the blogosphere, and in popular culture. Hopefully this will lead to more entrepreneurs, chefs, and business owners taking the plunge.