Changing Attitudes About Whale Meat Consumption
In defiance of the International Whaling Commission’s 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling, a handful of countries still hunt and kill whales for commercial profit. Anti-whaling advocates generally target the most blatant violators: Iceland and Norway, which openly flout the ban, and Japan, which uses the thinly veiled claim of scientific whaling to hunt whales commercially. Another country in which commercial whaling still takes place is South Korea. Although the South Korean government recognizes the commercial ban, whales are frequently killed as bycatch from fishing operations and sold for meat, a method that advocates view as an excuse for whaling for profit.
This paper, published in the Journal of Marine and Island Cultures, examines whaling activities in South Korea as a product of cultural motivations. The author notes that from 2004-2011, 89 minke whales on average died annually from entanglements in fishing nets in South Korea. He next seeks to answer the question of why South Koreans continue to promote whaling despite the ban. As he describes, arguments over whaling and bycatch are often presented as a scientific debate. Some argue that large numbers of whales caught in nets is evidence of a growing whale population that threatens fish stocks while conservationists attempt to gather evidence to the contrary. The reality involves more complex social and cultural factors.
To further examine these factors, the author presents a case study based on interviews with public officials, restaurant owners, and members of the public in the seaside city of Ulsan. He states that when the government put the ban in place, they did so without considering how it would impact communities like Ulsan that were heavily involved in whaling. As a result, many local people reacted by not only opposing the ban but also seeking to establish whaling and the consumption of whale meat as a significant cultural tradition that had not previously existed. They did so through activities such as creating a festival to celebrate the consumption of whale meat and the whaling culture. They argued that whales must be eaten for the survival of local culture and petitioned for the right to institute whaling as a matter of social justice.
The author also describes how many restaurants in Ulsan actively promote the consumption of whale meat by residents and tourists. Some even go so far as to develop new dishes that are thought to be more palatable for first-time whale meat consumers. The author notes that, while restaurants and whale meat vendors are primarily motivated by economic profit, they are supported by groups like the local tourism board that seek to make whaling a cultural institution.
In conclusion, the author states that in “Ulsan, Korea, and other countries where eating whale meat is viewed as a social justice issue, the environmentalists’ preferred solution of outlawing whale meat consumption is not feasible.” For policy-makers to effectively reduce commercial whaling, he recommends that they adopt a “radical new approach” that shows “respect to the local culture of whale meat consumers,” such as restricting the sale of whale meat to traditional events and locations. Anti-whaling advocates may view such policies as a slippery slope to sanctioning whaling and whale meat consumption. But this case demonstrates how enacting policies without input and support from local stakeholders can backfire and prompt people to become even further entrenched in their points of view.