A Fish Too Far. By: Tim Kelly, contributing editor at Forbes.

Tim Kelly

Tim Kelly

If whale meat were ever banned in Japan, few people beyond die-hard marine mammal connoisseurs would notice. Hardly seen in supermarkets or served in restaurants, the meat has for years been little more than a culinary curiosity, for many a reminder of school lunches, where it was served because it is cheaper than beef, pork or chicken.

Japan’s insistence on hunting whales isn’t about culinary freedom; it has more to do with keeping several hundred fishermen in work. Not so with tuna. Whether it be the light pink, fat-laden flesh cut from the fish’s belly or the deep red slices cuts from its flank, the Japanese love it and chew through about 120,000 tons of the stuff a year, eating everything, including the eyeballs. The Japanese gobble up 80% of the world’s catch.

So it was a relief to the Japanese that their diplomats last week succeeded in stopping the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora from adding Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna to its list of animals at risk of extinction. Had it not, its trade would have been banned and the Japanese would have been left fishing around for an alternative. At the group’s meeting in Qatar last week it spurred Japanese bureaucrats to work feverishly to win enough backing to foil the conservationists. They even arranged a slap-up tuna sushi dinner for delegates from nations they figured could be persuaded to vote no.

To the Japanese the tuna row amounts to culinary imperialism by holier-than-thou Westerners. The attempt to harpoon the heart of their cuisine smacks of hypocrisy and condescension toward the Asian nation’s eating habits. The Chinese and Koreans, who get a Western finger wagging over their taste for dogs or cats, might agree. After all, is herding kitties and pooches into cramped cages and then onto the dinner table any crueler than battery farming chickens or forcing ducks to gag on corn mash to produce foie gras?

Yet the crusading goes on. To American and European eyes, now more than ever, the Japanese look like cruel pillagers of the seas. The Cove, the gory, Oscar-winning documentary of Japan’s annual dolphin slaughter, makes them look barbaric. The snarl of an angry Japanese fisherman will lose out to the fixed smile of a porpoise every time.

The Japanese have scored a couple of public relations goals, too. Arresting Peter Bethune, a Sea Shepherd activist who boarded a Japanese whaler demanding compensation after the captain rammed his snazzy motorboat, was one of them. Kept in the vessels brig, he accompanied the whaling fleet back to Japan were he was arrested for trespass. He is now waiting to be martyred in a Japanese court. He’s not alone. Also accused are a pair of Greenpeace members charged with theft and trespassing. Police arrested the two after they claimed to have uncovered proof that whalers and even politicians were pilfering Japan’s mountain of uneaten marine mammal.

The Japanese may one day stop eating whale meat, but not tuna, and no amount of western bullying will make them. Many diners in Tokyo and Osaka will probably agree that catching too many tuna is a bad idea. A frontal assault on their eating habits, however, isn’t the best way to persuade them or their government to do anything about it.

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