A bloody diversion?

While the recent UN International Court of Justice finding against Japanese whaling is a great victory it does raise an interesting question. Was Japanese whaling a bloody, but clever diversion, from a much bigger problem?

No, the blog has not become addicted to conspiracy theories but a friend recently outlined a slightly alternative view of the role of whaling in Japanese society and economy which he had discovered while living and working in Japan. Whale meat is not some long honoured traditional Japanese food but rather an emergency measure introduced by the post-war US administration of the country. Unlike the rights of the native peoples of the Arctic region there is no long-standing cultural rationale. The recognition of such a rationale is why the Inuit and Greenlanders, for instance, still take some whales and share them among the community. Having tasted a small portion of one in Greenland, out of courtesy to a village host, the blog thinks it’s a tradition which seems to be of little culinary appeal whatever the cultural justification.

But, the blog’s friend argued, the justifiable world-wide emphasis on stopping whaling distracted attention from an even bigger problem – over-fishing and the Japanese role in it. The argument is analogous to the situation with trees. Environmentalists find it very easy to raise concerns about forests (and to raise money on the back of the concerns) in comparison with raising concerns about cars. You can always find a demonstrator up a tree in Victoria’s East Gippsland but rarely do they blockade the Ford Australia V8 engine plant. A vivid example of this importance of symbols is found in the great film, Scenes from a Mall, where we see Woody Allen and Bette Midler in the midst of their Californian kitchen. The kitchen contains just about every form of electric motor you can imagine and is situated in a house perched high over the Pacific. Woody Allen is opening the morning newspaper and says in rage that he doesn’t know how many times he has told the paper boy that they are sincere environmentalists and don’t want the paper wrapped in plastic.

Whaling, justifiably, has a significant emotional impact. It is interesting that Malcolm Fraser, when Australian Prime Minister, was reputedly converted to opposition to whaling by emotional conversations with his children. Indeed, it is difficult to think of killing whales without feeling revulsion. Yet the same passion is rarely seen about fishing generally.

The situation with over-fishing is well documented in a recent Economist leader http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21596942-new-management-needed-planets-most-important-common-resource-tragedy-high#sthash.s1EFs46x.dpbs . Describing Garrett Harding’s thesis in the article The Tragedy of the Commons The Economist says: “Such a tragedy is now unfolding, causing serious damage to a resource that covers almost half the surface of the Earth.” The leader goes on to target the culprits: fishing subsidies with subsidise an industry which loses billions and does huge environmental damage; the lack of a global vessel register; the fact that an eighth of the land mass has legal protection in national parks and similar areas compared with less than one per cent of the high seas; and an appalling system of governance. In terms of governance, says The Economist, “the sharks are in charge of the fish farm”.

Obviously acidification and pollution (witness the confusion caused by garbage in the sea and the Malaysian airline search) are also major problems. But the law of the sea (endorsed by most nations except the US) is simply not effective because of over-lapping and fragmented organisations looking at differing aspects of governance for shipping, fishing and mining in different parts of the sea. In the midst of this confusion giant Japanese fishing factory ships scoop up huge quantities of fish from around the world. Existing 200 mile limits are largely useless in coping with the Japanese fleet and those of many other limits.

Great magicians often work their tricks by diverting our attention. While the campaign to stop whaling has been hugely important the relative equanimity with which the Japanese have greeted it has been surprising. Perhaps it wasn’t that important to them anyway – or at least not as important as another industry of immense cultural and financial significance? Except perhaps as a bloody and dramatic diversion in a clever issues management campaign?