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The Gap Year Blog

Culture vs Conservation

28 Jan 2019 17:05 PM

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Edited with Permission by Frontier

We live in a world where the evidence of human actions affecting our environment through transformation of land for agricultural use, emissions and increasing temperatures of, both air and oceans, is well-supported with scientific research and can be even seen with our own eyes. All this is a threat for biodiversity. The changing and warming environment forces species to either adapt or they will face an eventual extinction. Unfortunately, the last part is becoming reality at an increasing pace. According to WWF, every year estimated 200 to 100,000 species become extinct. The rate that is approximately 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate.  

People are slowly realizing more radical actions are required to protect the fragile nature, but the only solution many seem to think of to this complex problem of slowly collapsing ecosystem is to cut down emissions. The increasing amount of greenhouse gases from industrial work and transportation contributes to global warming by thickening the planet’s atmosphere therefore blocking the radiation from leaving and ending up heating the planet’s surface. Most of the countries have woken up to this reality of rising temperatures by agreeing to reduce the high level of carbon emissions– Paris Climate Agreement from 2015 being an example of that.

Photo Credit: Flickr

These emissions also rise the temperatures of oceans to such levels some species cannot adjust to, resulting a loss of many marine life. But this is not the biggest threat to marine biodiversity, the biggest threat is proposed by overfishing which has driven many species to near extinction. Why haven’t we started to tackle this issue with the same determination than cutting down CO2 emissions?

The answer is culture.

The main reason for overfishing is that fish is an immense part of diet and livelihood of many cultures, especially in coastal countries. Every day, fishing vessels sail across the seas with large trawls dragging behind them, capable of capturing 19 tons of fish a year, roughly a fourth of all wild-caught seafood. This a pace most species cannot survive on as their natural reproduction rate is often too slow to reproduce enough fish to replace this gap.

Fishing can be a lucrative income for costal regions where diets mainly consist of seafood, but many fishers have started to notice a decline in the amount of fish they catch, especially this is noticed when looking at Atlantic bluefin tuna and some whale species stocks, such as fin whale and blue whale, which are fighting for their survival.

This raises a question, why can’t we restrict overfishing of some species and create a more regulated industry that would allow endangered species to revive? There are already international regulation bodies for restricting fishing that have taken as their task to create a more sustainable industry for both the fish stocks and the fishers. One particularly vocal and active advocate for regulated seas is International Whaling Commission, but unlike with some fishing organization, the focus seems to be more on the conservation of whales, not in the establishing of sustainable whaling industry.

Photo Credit: Flickr

Japan, a now-former-member of IWC, has always been a critic of the commercial whaling moratorium, which in 1982 banned commercial whaling of all species. Japan is not the only critic of the ban. Norway and Iceland have defied the moratorium by openly resuming to commercial whaling with various cultural and profitable motives. For some reason though, these countries receive far less press for their whaling than Japan, which has been practicing whaling for scientific use under IWC for over 30 years. Japan has constantly been criticised for using scientific research as a cover-up for commercial whaling as the meat of whales killed for sciencific use was eventually sold forward. Japan's whaling in whale sanctuaries has also faced strong critic. 

At the end of last year, Japan received a lot of news coverage for its decision to resume back to commercial whaling despite the strong opposition from many countries and conservation organizations. But it’s not like this was an unexpected decision. For years, Japan has tried to get a permission to recommence commercial whaling based on its scientific research that, according to Japan, show that some of the whale species could be hunt sustainably without harming the stocks. International Court of Justice has however pointed that the research had yet generated few results. 

One of the arguments for whaling in Japan has been the long history it has in the country. The first mentions of whaling date back to the early 8th century when whaling was mentioned in Kojiki, the first written record in Japan. In early Japanese culture, whales were considered as gods and whale shrines were built to worship them to whaling villages. These facts have long been used to justify traditional whaling that dates back thousands of years even though, in reality, these traditions were later forgotten when whaling become commercialized. 

The current whaling style Japan is conducting in Antarctic did not start until in the 1930s and it experienced its peak after the second-world war when the nation was starving, and there was shortage of any other food. In the 1960s, Japan was already killing over 20,000 whales a year, driving some species close to extinction. At the time, whaling was still profitable and there were more fish in the sea. If you consider this, commercial whaling Japan is resuming to is actually relatively new and not historic.

Photo Credit: Flickr

Whaling is not a cornerstone of Japanese culture and doesn’t define it as strongly as some other aspects of Japanese lifestyle. It’d be the same as saying poultry is a part of traditional British culture. Even though it is one of the most eaten meats in the UK, and no doubt, a big part of many people’s everyday diet, it has no deeper ties to British cultural heritage or believes.

Whaling is also certainly not about profit nowadays as every year revenues keep declining due to Japanese people substituting whale meat with other alternatives, like beef and chicken. It is only small areas that actually conduct whaling anymore, so one would think ending whaling culture wouldn’t hit hard on the economy, and other sources of incomes could be found for these coastal areas. So, why does Japan still continue whaling?

Whaling in Japan is controlled by the government which might be one of the reasons Japan insists on maintain whaling for cultural consistency even though most of the people in the country do not eat whale meat.  The governmental bureau has a large budget reserved for whaling expenses, and currently, it is not in the interest of MPs running the bureau to lose their paychecks by closing down the department and banning whaling as a conservation effort.

There’s no denying that whaling has a long history in Japan but its meaning for Japanese and their culture is up for debate. When considering how unprofitable whaling has become because of the decline in consumption of whale meat, would it be completely unreasonable to assume Japan would restrain from whaling and find a new income for the whaling towns that still practice this activity despite the losses?

Culture is a big part of everyone’s upbringing, and it shapes the way we grow up to be, which is why the question of which cultural practices we can strip away in the name of conservation and preservation biodiversity is a very divisive but evermore immediate question we need to ask. Actions to protect the biodiversity of oceans - an essential for life’s survival on earth - are needed but, to certain extent, so are actions for preserving cultures. This means, in the future, we are forced to make tough choices if we are to preserve the environment as beautiful and versatile as it is.

By Tiia Kärkkäinen - Online Journalism Intern

Frontier runs terrestrial & marine conservation, community, teaching and adventure projects in over 50 countries - join us and explore the world!