Ocean Sustainability: From Taiji to the World

September 9th, 2010By Category: Culture, Photography

The photo depicts a peaceful inlet of coastal water in Taiji, a little known whaling town on the Pacific coast of Japan’s Kii Peninsula in Wakayama Prefecture. Taiji is on the tail end of a larger area known as Kumano, which boasts an impressive array of world heritage sites- pilgrim trails and striking temples set in both ancient cedar forests and along pristine coastline. The jagged asymmetry of the windswept trees perched on jutting outcroppings of rocks, themselves constantly battered by the sea, feels like something out of the Ukiyo-e artist Hiroshige’s well-known repertoire.

Taiji's Infamous Cove

Taiji’s Infamous Cove

Yet every September when a group of fishermen emerge from Taiji’s sheltering coves to catch the yearly dolphin migration in order to supply the world’s aquariums and dolphinariums with fresh dolphins (at around 200,000USD a head), these picturesque waters turn from cobalt blue to blood red in a matter of hours. How? Why? It depends on who you ask.

Last October, HESO asked Louie Psihoyos founder of OPS (Oceanic Preservation Society) and director of The Cove. Referring to the annual catch of approximately 2000 dolphins in the waters of Taiji, he said Japan is “a microcosm of the oceans.

“I really feel,” he continued, “we only have a couple decades to turn around what’s going on in the oceans. This generation coming up and maybe the next one are going to be the only generations to be able to fix this before it’s too late, before well, just break out all the champagne and drink it because…there’s not going to be anything left for anybody else…”

Maguro at Tsukiji Fish Market

Maguro at Tsukiji Fish Market

While it’s hard not to buy into the popular notion of having repeatedly soiled our own diapers, to the point of ruination, it’s also hard not to applaud what a dedicated few are still doing to in trying to race the clock to help stem the tide (pun intended) of the current big biological catastrophe. Can Pollution, habitat loss, overfishing, global climate change and ocean acidification be overcome?

Save coral reefs for one, which constitute less than one percent of the ocean’s space, but are home to more than 25 percent of its fish and you save humanity. Kill them and you kill us. How are we planning on saving them from bleaching—a whitening of corals that occurs when symbiotic algae living within coral tissues are expelled? Bleached coral may recover over time or simply die out altogether. The truth is, as Bill Bryson puts it in A Short History of Nearly Everything, “We are astoundingly, sumptuously, radiantly ignorant of life beneath the seas.”

Most Japanese people are completely unaware of this hunt – it’s the largest direct hunt of any whale, dolphin and porpoise in the world and is putting these animals at risk while producing hundreds of tonnes of toxic meat for human consumption.

Clare Perry (Begin of the skype highlighting, End of the skype highlighting)
EIA Senior Campaigner

Meanwhile, many Japanese Fisheries apologists counter with statements like, “…in a world where we eat millions of chickens, cows and pigs, where we seem intent on plucking every salmon, cod, oyster and shrimp out of the ocean, is there something morally wrong about hunting a marine mammal like a dolphin?”

Whale meat at Tsukiji Fish Market

Whale meat at Tsukiji Fish Market

Not morally, but concerning consumer’s health, yes. Based on 1972 World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations, Japan’s fisheries and Health Ministry (JMHLW) have been ignoring the self-imposed maximum contamination levels in seafood products of 0.3µg/g (parts per million – ppm) Methylmercury (MeHg) and 0.4ppm Mercury (Hg). The onetime giant Blue-fin Tuna, sold in sushi bars around the world as maguro, is regularly well over the legal 0.4ppm of Mercury limit. Recently tested Dall’s porpoise samples (caught in northern Japan) being 1.02µg/g, almost three-and-a-half times the recommended limit, often more (Source: EIA-International).

Lucky then that not many are actually eating it. Certainly not the Japanese. According to the UK’s Guardian, of the 1,873 tons of whale meat processed in 2001, 70 tons went unsold. As a recent poll suggests, some 95 percent of the 1,047 respondents reportedly ate whale meat “very rarely”, had not eaten whale meat in a “long time”, or ate it “not at all”. 34.5 percent of the poll’s participants thought commercial whaling should resume, and 39.2 percent “neither agreed nor disagreed” with the idea.

One Japanese scholar with an opinion, Jun Morikawa of Rakuno Gakuen University in Sapporo, argues that whaling’s popularity—and therefore the fishing of all cetaceans—is largely a myth promulgated by certain governmental bodies and major players within the whaling industry. Though it seems that as long as 39.2 percent of the world “neither agree nor disagree” with any of this, our oceans will be in trouble.

Text & Photography ©Manny Santiago / HESO

Author of this article

Manny Santiago

Hopping back and forth between Tokyo and San Francisco, the founder of HESO Magazine is currently writing a book on Overland Travel.

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