Whale of a Meal

Posted January 4, 2007

Categories: Articles, Food

The all-you-can-eat lunch buffet at the hotel in Pusan had only a couple dozen pieces of the long strips of dark red sushi. I managed to snag one piece before it ran out. My first experience of whale meat was not chewy at all. It tasted like an especially rich piece of raw tuna.

Whale sushi is a rare specialty in the cities of the southern coast of South Korea. Unlike Tokyo, Seoul does not hunt whales under the pretense of collecting scientific data. This week, for instance, Japan is undertaking its largest ever “scientific” whale hunt and expects to kill 50 humpback and 50 fin whales as well as 935 minke whales. The meat eventually ends up in Japanese restaurants and fish markets. In contrast, South Korea has on the surface at least observed the moratorium on commercial whaling that International Whaling Commission (IWC) established in 1986. In 2005, the coastal city of Ulsan heeded the protests of environmentalists and opted not to build a whale processing plant to handle its annual “accidental by-catch” of whales.

A lot of accidents seem to happen, though, when South Korean boats come close to unsuspecting whales. Between 1999 and 2003, South Korea says that fisherman accidentally snared 458 minke whales. But U.S. researchers and their South Korean colleagues bought whale meat from South Korean markets and, through DNA testing, determined that the true catch was really twice that number. Between South Korea’s “accidents” and Japan’s “scientific research,” the minke whale in the waters between the two countries is now endangered, according to some IWC members.

Is eating whale an integral part of Asian culture in the same way that it occupies a special place in Inupiat society in Alaska? The comparison, made by some in Japan and South Korea, might not be an apt one. Subsistence hunters annually harpoon only 300 beluga whales out of an estimated 40,000 in Alaskan waters, Peter Mathiessen observes in a recent piece in The New York Review of Books. The catch doesn’t last the year. Cut up and packed away, a single beluga, Nancy Lord writes in her book Beluga Days, “would not quite fill a large chest freezer.” After the hunt, the meat is shared throughout the village and a good bit of it gets sent to relatives and friends elsewhere in Alaska. Contrast that with the way Japan and South Korea commercialize the catch and sell the meat on the market at the highest possible price.

It’s a good thing that, unlike whales, turkeys are not endangered creatures. Imagine how Americans would react if an international authority—the International Turkey Commission—decreed that we had to keep our hands off the sacred centerpiece of the Thanksgiving Day feast. Like the Inupiat, only communities in and around turkey hunting grounds would be allowed to bag a handful of birds every November. Those in distant cities, if they had friends or connections, would be lucky to get a drumstick or even a giblet to serve up with sweet potatoes, string beans, and cranberry sauce.

Our “freedom from want,” to quote Norman Rockwell’s famous Thanksgiving painting, might be as fleeting as the abundant whale meat of earlier times, when the English among others used it for dog food (and margarine and ice cream). The global population continues to increase, the demand for grain continues to rise (for food and fuel), and the growing middle class in countries like China is eating ever higher on the food chain. Perhaps all meat in the future will become as precious as whale sushi is currently, and our days of endless turkey are numbered.

Between Two Whales

Korea is often described as a shrimp between the two whales of Japan and China. The fact that the shrimp is divided in two makes both North and South Korea that much less secure in its relations with its neighbors.

But the prospects for the reunification of the two Koreas have never looked rosier. Mind you, the South Korean economy is more than 20 times the size of North Korea’s. One is a thriving democracy, the other a one-party state. The cultural gap remains enormous.

However, the Six Party Talks are moving closer to an agreement to end the nuclear crisis. The two Koreas held their second summit back in October. And numerous projects now connect the two halves of the Korean peninsula.

One of the more promising projects is the re-connecting of the rail lines that once ran the length of the peninsula. “At the second inter-Korean summit in October, Kim Jong Il and South Korean president Roh Moo Hyun agreed to complete the rail upgrade during 2008,” I write in Postcard from … Pusan. “The two sides plan to send a joint cheering squad by train to the Beijing Olympics next summer. Cheerleaders are just the beginning. Sending freight by train rather than by sea will save time and money, not only for Korea on the sending end but for consumers at the terminus of the rail lines. Shipping freight from Pusan to the Russian port of Nakhodka costs just as much as sending the products by freight from Nakhodka to the end of the trans-Siberian railroad, a distance nearly 20 times greater.”

Update on Pakistan

Pervez Musharraf declared martial law at the beginning of November, suspended Pakistan’s constitution, and dismissed the Supreme Court for good measure. The United States says it wants democracy in Pakistan, but FPIF contributor Sameer Dosanni wonders if that’s really the case.

“The alternative to the deplorable status quo would be real democracy, meaning for the first time in a long time (maybe for the first time ever), a Pakistani government that represents the will and interests of its own people,” he writes in Pakistan’s Wounded Dictator. “One implication of Pakistani democracy would almost certainly be an end to ties with the United States or at least an end to the cozy relationship between Washington and Islamabad that’s existed in the past. Pakistanis have long been ready for a genuine Pakistani democracy. Is Washington ready for it?”

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FPIF, November 26, 2007

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