I’ve had a lifelong fascination (or perhaps, more of a love-hate relationship) with whales.
At the aquarium as a child, I admired beluga whales, with their adorable fat heads and smiling faces. I examined encyclopedia images of humpback and orca whales, and wondered what it would be like to have baleen. I listened to my CD of ocean sounds, wondering what kind of immense vocal cords could create those eerie clicks and wails.
But along with my fascination for whales, they also inspired fear.
I would sit in the bath as a little girl, playing with my toys, and suddenly the mental image of a harpooned orca whale would flop toward me ominously. I would imagine an orca’s head coming up between the seats of the school bus, toothy mouth open to gobble me up. (With the help of the school psychologist, I eventually learned to eliminate it with the magic word: “Begone!”) Even in swimming pools, I would dunk myself underwater, and the wrinkles in the pool lining would resemble the outline of a humpback whale. Cascading waves after a few cannonballs looked like dorsal fins swarming all around me. In the familiar waters of Long Island Sound, where there are very few large animals, I took way too long to build up the nerve to venture into the shallows. “They’re out there, waiting for me…” I would think to myself.
To this day, they frighten me: gargantuan, intelligent creatures that could swallow me up at their leisure. I still dislike swimming in deep water, be it salt, fresh, or chlorinated. I submerge into the water, and am overcome with mental images of strange beasts looming beneath me, ready to take an exploratory bite. The idea of an intelligent behemoth waiting for me down in that murky water is too much to bear.
Whales, in all their mysterious glory, are simultaneously terrifying and compelling to me. My curiosity was further piqued when I learned that whale meat sashimi was available in Japan. Is it safe to eat whale meat? Who eats whale meat? How are they hunted? Is it ethical? What does it taste like?
Herein lies the origin of this edition of “Food Questions.” I originally started researching this piece 2 years ago, and after realizing how complex and controversial this issue is, I shelved it for a long time. Having read through multiple sources since, I’ve come back to it, refreshed and fired up. I do not claim to know everything about this topic, and this piece is not intended to be the definitive history of the consumption of whale meat. I invite any and all constructive comments and reflections, as well as suggestions for further reading.
First, let’s look at the creatures themselves. We can divide whales into 2 categories, depending on what’s inside their mouths: teeth or baleen. Toothed whales, as their name suggests, have full sets of chompers that they use to hunt and bite into their prey, which can range from fish, to squid, or even fellow whales. Baleen whales’ mouths are filled with sheets of baleen plates, resembling the bristles of a hairbrush, and made from a material similar to that of our fingernails. They are filter feeders, meaning they gulp in huge amounts of water, collecting millions of krill and zooplankton, then filter out the water through their baleen, leaving behind those tiny, delicious creatures to be swallowed.
It’s said that baleen whales generally taste better than toothed whales, but every whale species has been eaten by humans at some point in history. But not only can whales be a source of food, they are also a source of exploitable resources.
Whales possess thick layers of fat (called blubber), sometimes several inches thick, under their skin, which insulates them from frigid ocean temperatures. Blubber is vascularized (meaning it has veins running through it, permitting circulation), unlike the fat in ours or other mammals’ fat stores. This blubber can be boiled to produce oil, which was an extremely lucrative commodity. (Foreshadowing alert!)
Baleen, once harvested from whales’ mouths, was used for anything from corset stays, fishing rods, buttons, springs, umbrellas, upholstery, frameworks for suitcases, and more. Braided baleen made strong nets, fishing line, and animal traps; the bones were used for building frames and sled runners in the Arctic north.
Fun Fact:Great whales (the big guys, mostly baleen) store carbon in their fat and meat, and when they die and sink to the ocean floor, the carbon is effectively removed from the atmospheric cycle for hundreds of years. When they surface to breathe, they also take the opportunity to poop. Whale and dolphin poop contains nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and iron. When whales drop their deuces at the surface, this helps circulate nutrients from the bottom of the ocean to the top. Phytoplankton adore these nutrients, and help pull carbon from the air through photosynthesis. Krill and other zooplankton feed on this phytoplankton, which kicks off the oceanic food chain. (In other words: yay for whale caca!)
It is difficult to say with certitude how long humans have been eating whale meat. We probably first tasted whale meat from whales that washed up on shore, then built up to hunting smaller species that could be caught close to shore.
The Makah tribe in Washington state, the original inhabitants of the northwesternmost point of the continental United States, have hunted whales for at least 2,000 years. The Indigenous peoples of modern-day Alaska, Northern Canada, and Greenland were hunting whales well over one thousand years ago. In Japan, it is thought that the consumption of whale meat dates back to prehistory, and small-scale coastal whaling is said to have started in the 12th century. In Europe, the Basques (a European ethnic group from the region which straddles modern-day north-central Spain and south-western France) were whaling in the eleventh century. Suffice it to say, humans that live near whale migration routes have a well-established history of consuming whale meat, and of using the resulting products. The practice of whaling is extremely varied and impossible to neatly categorize.
What I can say with certainty is: depending on the species, whale meat and blubber are good eatin’. It is a highly politicized act today, one that people try to squeeze into neat dichotomies, but one that merits examination from several different viewpoints.
As a New England native, I grew up hearing references to whaling, especially out of Nantucket and Cape Cod. The Mayflower Pilgrims are said to have first seen a group of American Indians at First Encounter Beach on Cape Cod in December 1620, working on harvesting meat from blackfish (also known as pilot whales or grampuses). Written accounts say that, upon sight of the animals, the Pilgrims immediately saw dollar signs, imagining the goldmine of whale oil and bone (or baleen).
The English settlers in New England took to the oceans, soon developing a whaling industry that blew other European nations like the Dutch and British out of the water.
Right whales were the first target, whose migration routes come close to New England shores. As American whaling depleted whale populations close to home, the expeditions started moving further and further out, from the North Atlantic, to the Arctic, to the South Atlantic, dipping below South America, and further and further into Pacific waters. By the 1830’s and 40’s, longer expeditions became the norm, in search of sperm whales, whose oil was particularly desired for its high quality.
For More Info:For a particularly harrowing account of the fated whaling expedition that inspired the novel Moby Dick, there is a fantastic video by Caitlyn Doughty on Youtube. Watch it after you’ve finished reading!
Upon catching a whale at sea, the blubber and baleen were stripped from the animal, and the rest of the meat and other edible parts were tossed overboard. If any whale meat was collected, it was most often processed into fertilizer and animal feed. To the American ship crews, whale foods were completely unfamiliar, meaning there was no market for it back home, and therefore no profit to be made from it.
Much of the attitude toward whaling today is a direct legacy of the oil-and-bone whaling industry. Whalers on long journeys connected with people along the way, creating an enormous commercial network. American whalers were making money hand over fist, helping cement the country’s economic influence, but also cementing cultural attitudes about whale meat.
If the Yankee whalesmen hired local people to help with the hunt during one leg of their journey, they would keep the oil and bone, and give away the “extraneous parts” (meaning meat and internal organs) to those local people for food.
The captain of an Arctic expedition out of New London, Connecticut, commented that the practice “bore a racial caste.” He wrote: “We of the white race were proud of our victory over such a monster of the deep, and they of the darker skin were rejoiced at having aided in the capture of what would very soon give tham an immense quantity of […] food.” According to him, “civilized” food consisted of familiar things like coffee and sea-biscuit. Witnessing an Inuit mealtime, which he categorized as “masses of nasty, uneatable flesh, skins, blood, and bones, scattered all about the igloo” inspired pity for the people “who could be reduced to such necessity as to eat the horrid stuff.” Other accounts support this commentary, with American whalers refusing to take part in whale feasts, as they possessed “a constitution too refined and too white to stomach such a diet,” that it was “trying on a Caucasian’s olfactory nerves.”
Aboard American whaling vessels, a certain amount of provisions would inevitably become inedible, due to rot or worm infestation. So out of necessity, sailors would augment their limited stores with a variety of more exotic protein sources, including albatross, iguanas, porpoises, dolphins, polar bears, Galapagos turtles (which, according to written accounts, is surprisingly tasty) and whale meat.
One of the most common dishes was “doughnuts,” which were “hard bread or biscuits dipped in boiling whale oil,” a vicutal handed out as a reward for a good catch. Minced pilot whale meat, which resembled “coarse beef”, would be rolled into balls, sometimes augmented with pork, and fried into “blackfish balls.” “Pancakes,” or fried pilot whale brains, were also apparently particularly tasty.
However, in most cases, even in desperate times aboard ship, whale meat was not considered a viable foodstuff. There are reports of work stoppages, or even mutinies, over complaints of the poor quality and limited quantities of ship’s rations, chanting: “More meat, or no whales!” The idea of eating the meat from the whales they caught and butchered was so far beyond the pale for the shipworkers, they couldn’t see the bounty of food they came into contact with as a legitimate source of sustenance.
For American industrial whalers, eating whale meat was a last-ditch solution to stave off hunger, so they could get home to eat “real food.” Those who would choose to eat it were seen as “exotic,” “primitive” foreigners, deepening the prejudice of whale meat with “poverty and barbarism.”
Until the 20th century, most American and European whaling was singularly focused on the harvesting of oil and bone. From the early 20th century, when the baleen market was eliminated, New England whaling started to taper off, and other countries moved into industrial whaling with their new shiny ships, harpoon guns, and the like (thanks, industrialization!).
THE BIRTH OF WHALING REGULATIONS
In 1931, the League of Nations instituted the Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. In 1946, by the time certain whale species had been hunted to the brink of extinction by industrial whaling, the United States initiated an international meeting, held in Washington DC, which resulted in the birth of the IWC (the International Whaling Commission) in 1948. The founding members include the United States, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Russia, Norway, France, and Australia. The IWC imposed whaling quotas on member countries and prohibited the hunting of endangered whale species.
There was a separate set of regulations addressing Indigenous whaling that imposed restrictive rules. Aboriginal whaling was heavily restricted and forbidden from using modern technology: using guns and working for non-aboriginal employers was prohibited, and only “native craft propelled by oars or sails” were permitted.
Those provisions were later lifted, but by instituting those regulations, it drove home the vision of whaling being an “either-or:” it was industrial-or-aboriginal, and considering those provisions, either civilized-or-primitive.
THE BRITISH WHALING DISASTER
Pre-World War II British whaling brought in 500,000 tons of whale oil per year, as well as 600,000 tons of whale meat, which was used only for animal feed and fertilizer. In the interest of pushing for British-led scientific research, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (which lasted from 1915 to 1965) launched an ambitious research mission to study the nutritional value of whale meat, to help offset the massive meat shortages that followed the war.
Led by Doctor R.E.M. Case, a crew of 540 (with just one medical officer), they set out for 33 weeks to the Antarctic from 1946-1947, to research the viability of whale meat as an alternative to feed the hungry post-war British masses. Along the way, they successfully killed about 2,500 whales, stripping the blubber, processing it into oil, and taking flesh samples for examination. Unfortunately for the crew, they were woefully unprepared for the task they had set out to accomplish. The account of this study reads like a warning tale about ineptitude, biting off more than you can chew, as evidenced by the hellish living conditions onboard the ship.
The mission quickly turned into a lesson about the dangers of bacterial cross-contamination. They didn’t anticipate the fact that blubber, being highly insulating, helped retain body heat within the whales they killed. And we all know the formula: Moisture + Heat = Bacteria’s Paradise. The animals began building up, rotting away faster than they could process them, and soon, sanitary measures were sacrificed in favor of stocking up on the precious whale oil. Toiling workers sustained cuts to their hands, which quickly became infected with dangerous strains of bacteria (affectionately dubbed “blubber finger”). Numerous cases of “gastritis” were recorded, seemingly due to “continuous reflex stimulation.” (I tip my hat to Mr. Case, who, in proper British form, managed to sugar-coat the fact that the crew was constantly retching from the hideous odor of decomposing whale flesh for weeks on end.)
In Dr. Case’s final report, his groundbreaking takeaways were that: sufficient medical supplies should be kept on hand; antiseptic measures “might prove highly desirable;” and one should avoid handling animals that have been dead for an indeterminate amount of time. Illuminating. His conclusion about whale meat was that it’s not necessarily “unfit or suspect” for human consumption. (They couldn’t produce more specific nutritional information about whale meat, as they were unable to get meat samples that were not bacteria-tainted.)
At the time of this study, it was already known that there were peoples around the world who consumed whale meat. The Japanese were in a similar situation, relying on whale meat to help feed their own population after World War II. Accounts of American and European whalers in the 19th century existed, as did the knowledge of whale eating customs of indigenous peoples in coastal communities throughout the world. There had even been a British study in 1939 that showed whale meat was “perfectly wholesome,” a “good and attractive meat.”
In short, Dr. Case could probably have stayed home, saved hundreds of people and whales from unnecessary harm, read a few books, and drawn a similar conclusion.
This spectacular failure of the Balaena represents part of a tendency of Anglo-centric meddling into a practice they were ill-equipped to study, leaving a wasteful trail in their wake, then turning around and purporting to act in the name of progress. The number of whales that were needlessly killed, and the amount of resulting meat wasted on that journey is downright offensive.
The following year, the United Kingdom became a member the IWC.
AMERICAN ATTITUDES TOWARD WHALE MEAT IN THE 20TH CENTURY
Across the Atlantic, the American perspective on whale meat wasn’t so different. There were two concerted efforts to push whale meat onto the American public. The first was during World War I, with the publication of pamphlets and recipes in magazines for dishes like “Stuffed Roast Whale,” “Whale Croquettes,” “Whale a la Mode,” and “Minced Whale with Scrambled Eggs.” The American Museum of Natural History in New York City curated a whale meat luncheon in February 1918, and also published various writings on whale meat. The portrayal placed heavy emphasis on the “picturesque” qualities of those who ate whale meat regularly. To the well-to-do American public observing the “otherness” of whale meat, it was received more as an ethnographic curiosity, a custom practiced by those who were less “civilized” and “too poor to buy beef.”
The second attempt was made during the 1950’s, when Norwegian whale meat products were marketed in the eastern United States. This attempt targeted, again, the desire of Americans with money for “new tastes and exotic pleasures.” One such product was “Captain Seth’s Frozen Tenderloin Norwegian Whale Steak,” pictured below. This attempt also flopped; it was considered more of a curiosity, or a strange joke, rather than a true gastronomic option.
Just as the false dichotomy that whaling can only be either for subsistence or profit is too simplistic, Japanese whaling cannot be oversimplified. It is important to note that the practice is highly regional, not to be painted in one brushstroke. Among other whaling nations, though, the primary difference with Japanese whaling is that the primary goal was obtaining the meat.
Japanese taste for whale meat likely started with eating meat from beached whales, then building up to coastal whaling. By the 16th century, kujira-gumi, or professional whaling parties, were present in almost all Western coastal prefectures, those that border the East Sea. All parts of the whales were utilized, and memorial services were held to give thanks.
During the 17th through 19th centuries, just one kujira-gumi existed in Awa (now Chiba Prefecture, on the East coast near Tokyo), which hunted a species of toothed whales, using different techniques than the kujira-gumi on the West coast. The resulting oil was sold in Edo (now Tokyo), and local communities ate the meat, which was considered to be of lower economic value. The meat was often seasoned and dried, preserved into a product called tare (of course, this is all before the days of refrigeration), which is still made today.
In fact, since the 17th century in southern Boso (Chiba Prefecture), tare has been a necessary offering during the Obon Festival. Obon is a Japanese Buddhist custom that takes place over a few days in August, where one is meant to honor one’s ancestors by visiting family graves and making offerings. This happens to coincide with the hunting season for Baird’s Beaked whales.
A collection of regional Japanese recipes was released in the 1920’s, which covered all 47 prefectures, as well as the Ainu, the indiginous ethnic group in Hokkaido. This collection of recipes was compiled from oral histories, and 26 of those 48 volumes contained at least one recipe for whale meat. Depending on the region, meat was served sliced raw, or preserved by sun-drying, salting, marinating, or pickled along with the blubber.
A Japanese friend of mine who has tried whale sashimi described it as “rich and meaty,” and quite enjoyable dipped in ginger soy sauce. Other preparations of whale meat include Harihari nabe (a simmered hot pot dish, made with fatty whale meat and mizuna, or Japanese mustard greens), or seared like a beef steak.
Whales were caught both locally and in Antarctic waters from 1906. From 1938 to 1939, in anticipation of wartime food shortages, the Japanese government pressed whalers to bring back whale meat from the Antarctic, in addition to the oil. In the years after World War II, Japanese citizens relied on that whale meat as an important source of protein. Japan possesses a limited amount of arable land, and for many older Japanese today, whale meat represents not only a longstanding tradition, but also the affordable, nourishing food that helped them get through the most difficult years after the war.
After the IWC whaling ban was instituted, the Japanese continued hunting whales by using the loophole that permits whaling for scientific or research purposes. Whale oil was produced through the 1980’s, and the meat was consumed locally.
The IWC provisions don’t make much room for the combination of industry and commerce with cultural tradition for its member countries: it’s either one or the other. While Japan was a member of the IWC, it worked around the whaling moratorium by using the scientific research provision: Whales caught in fishing nets were allowed to be sold, which gave people access to the meat, while maintaining its status on an international level as a “modern, industrialized nation.”
Japanese whaling has garnered plenty of criticism in recent years. A simple Internet search will give you all the ugly details, if you are curious. But the Japanese response was that other countries, particularly the United States, were imposing their sense of “culinary imperialism” and “Anglo-Saxon ethnocentrism” to a culture that does not fit into a one-size-fits-all solution.
Japan withdrew from the IWC in July 2019, and restarted commercial whaling as an “act of principle.” Japan is now barred from Antarctic whaling, limited to the waters inside its exclusive economic zone, which represents a smaller take, and is subject to strict quotas. There is a growing stockpile of whale meat, but limited suppliers from which food purveyors can order, so the price is driven up. Increased scrutiny from anti-whaling groups also brings negative publicity, causing food establishments to order limited quantities.
Even if quotas increase, the demand for the meat may not. The Japanese consume about 1 ounce of meat per capita per year, and there is a generational preference: not many younger people eat whale meat. It is much more expensive than other kinds of commercially available meat, so it is more like an occasional treat. In order for the whale meat market to continue in Japan, there will need to be more young people willing to buy it, and who are ready to pay a premium to have it.
The tradition of Grindadrap in the Faroe Islands is another example of sensationalized imagery that garners international ire, while a nation tries to keep tradition alive. An autonomous territory of Denmark, the Faroe Islands are a collection of 18 islands, where the climate is harsh, and the lands mountainous and agriculturally sparse. It is located in an isolated section in the eastern North Atlantic, and the Faroese have relied on fish, sea birds, whale meat, and more recently, imported foods.
Long-finned pilot whale drives, or Grindadrap, have been practiced at least since the 16th century, and perhaps as early as the 9th century, with the arrival of the Norse. It is the only remaining aboriginal whaling custom in Western Europe.
Between July and September, when a pod of pilot whales is spotted, the community mobilizes to draw the whales to shore, where they could then be killed and processed. It was (and still is) a community effort to gather precious foodstuffs and survive in a harsh climate. The fact that everyone who participates receives a share of the meat and fat, and that the rest has historically been distributed locally, for free, is a testament to the communal solidarity of this practice.
Blubber could be made into oil, which used to be one of the islands’ sole products for export, or used for cooking as lard or butter would be. Blubber and meat are also preserved by salting and hanging to dry, or by fermenting. The salted blubber is said to resemble bacon, whereas the meat resembles beef.
It is a custom that remains largely unchanged to this day, and is highly regulated by Faroese law. The first law about Grindadrap is the Sheep Letter, from 1298. Detailed records of statistics exist dating back to 1584, which are some of the longest-running continuous statistics of this type that exist anywhere in the world.
About 800 whales are caught per year, which does not affect the sustainability of the species (currently at about 750,000 in the eastern North Atlantic), and specific protocol are in place to kill the animals by inflicting the least amount of suffering possible. No part of the animals goes to waste, and is part of the local ecosystem that minimizes the need to import foods from Denmark (thereby also reducing the associated carbon footprint).
There are Faroese who do not participate, or even agree with it: quantities of food are imported from Denmark, and concerns persist about mercury levels in the meat. Faroese are advised to eat no more than one meal of whale meat and blubber per month, and to completely avoid the kidneys and liver. Blubber should not be eaten at all by girls and women who plan to have children, and even before becoming pregnant, women are encouraged to avoid whale meat for three months.
Despite the detailed records and rigid organization behind this practice, it has drawn global attention and criticism. Grisly images of bright red ocean water and rows of dead pilot whales in the bloody shallows are used to portray the practice as ghastly and inhumane. Scandalized thinkpieces are peppered throughout the Internet, and there are plenty of harsh opinions to go around about Grindadrap.
Reading more about it, though, reveals the community-based nature of the practice which forms an integral part of Faroese food culture.
Again, I wonder: Why the need to interfere? They seem to have their business under control. The Grindadrap is not purely commercial or for subsistence. It is community-driven, internally regulated for nearly 440 years, and only under scrutiny now because of the harmful effects of marine pollution and the kneejerk reaction to charged imagery, taken out of context.
Not all whaling nations have chosen to continue the tradition, though. Iceland, along with Norway and Japan, acted in defiance of the 1982 IWC whaling moratorium, to continue whaling for commercial purposes. After gaining independence in 1944, there was a desire to view whales as a part of the country’s natural resources, to be managed as they saw fit, as is their right.
Fin (or finback whale, an endangered species), and minke whales were hunted in Iceland, the latter being more popular. In 2013, 52% of Icelanders supported whaling, and minke whale meat was even served up in restaurants, drawing in tourists to taste a local delicacy.
But in 2015, whale watching drew in 300,000 tourists, which is equal to the entire population of the country. A huge increase in the protected whale sanctuaries in 2017 overtook former hunting grounds. The financial incentive, therefore, is more in whale watching, rather than the allure of the meat.
Icelandic public opinion about eating whale meat has waned as well. In a 2018 Gallup poll, just 1% of Icelandic respondants ate whale meat regularly, and 84% had never eaten it at all. Even when Icelanders ate whale meat more regularly, minke whale meat was considered a budget-friendly option, a “good enough” meat, but certainly not one to write home about.
So, if most Icelanders don’t eat whale meat, and tourist money is going toward whale watching, what’s the sense in keeping the industry alive?
This year, citing COVID-19 distancing restrictions, the two whaling companies in Iceland announced they would be suspending the whale hunt this year, one of which is doing so for the second year in a row. It is expected that the hunt will be suspended indefinitely.
SAVE THE WHALES
Back in the United States, petroleum and plastic eliminated the need for whale oil and bone, so by the 1970’s, when Greenpeace’s “Save the Whales” campaign gathered steam, the American public was free to support the effort. Why else would whales be hunted, if not for the oil and bone, which had become obsolete and no longer profitable? If there were other food options available, then why was it still necessary to eat whale meat? Why would anyone eat whale meat unless they were in a position of desperation? It was easy to declare that eating whale meat was no longer necessary, when the larger culture had never fully acknowledged it as a legitimate food source. Most of the people considering the issue had no skin in the game, nothing to lose.
The “Save the Whales” movement even helped transform American environmental policies, including the 1972 U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, which is still in effect today. It allowed Indigenous peoples on the Pacific coast and Alaska to continue subsistance whaling, as long as it was not “wasteful,” and the “authentic” products and handicrafts (“authentic” being strictly defined) were only to be sold locally, with the U.S. Secretary of the Interior tasked with overseeing compliance.
These measures carry along implications of separation from the economy, and of marginality. Plus, peoples that consumed whale meat were then expected to justify, on both a local and an international level, that it wasn’t “unnecessary” or “irrational.”
The IWC finally declared a worldwide moratorium of the hunting of all large whale species in 1982, which is still in effect today. Both American and international whaling agreements have come down hard on whaling regulations with industrial whaling in mind, retroactively (if ever) considering the points of view of those cultures that consume whales.
One thing is true: that when an authority frames it as one or the other, those in the gray are effectively silenced and cast aside. The authority, in this case, started with a stacked deck; after making a fortune from commercial whaling, and nearly bleeding the oceans dry, it decided to put measures in place to come to the rescue.
The bowhead whale, considered too dangerous to hunt by the Faroese, has historically been hunted in northern Alaska in the Beaufort Sea, their summer feeding grounds. The bowhead whale provides a variety of nutritious foods. Maktak (also spelled muktuk or maktaaq), or a layer of blubber with skin attached, is a food that can be served raw, frozen, boiled, or fried, and provides calories and vitamins A and D. The meat is a source of protein and B vitamins. The white gum attaching the baleen to the jaw could be eaten raw. Other internal organs are made into a stew, and the rest is fed to the dogs. The blubber could also be rendered into oil (formerly used in lamps for heat and light), as dip for foods, for cooking oil or dye (when mixed with red ochre), or for barter. Over the years, as bowhead populations decreased (yet again, due to industrial whaling), narwhal and beluga whales were sought after.
In 1977, the IWC banned the hunting of bowhead whales (which were critically endangered at the time), which presented a serious problem to the Alaskan tribes that depended on them for both nutritional and cultural reasons. The IWC recognizes “aboriginal subsistence whaling,” though, and after a review of this decision the IWC determined that, even though the Alaskan Inuit peoples could acquire necessary nutrition from other foods, the cultural significance of bowhead whales was deemed “irreplaceable,” so an exception was made.
Native Alaskans were expressly exempted from US Mammal Marine Protection Act that prohibited whaling, but according to tribal leaders, they have been deprived of those rights before. In addition to legal red tape, there is also a concern about mercury levels in these animals.
Coal-fired power plant emissions (including mercury and other contaminants) are drawn north via air and ocean currents. These toxins then accumulate in Arctic wildlife, particularly beluga whales, which have been found to contain very high levels of methylmercury. Methylmercury is the most toxic substance in the marine ecosystem, and it exists in abundance.
Health advisories are in place for pregnant women in the United States and Canada who eat seafood, citing concerns about mercury and other contaminants. But in Nunavik (Arctic Quebec), Inuit tribes have relied on the sea to provide necessary nutrients and fat, from fish, seals, walrus, and beluga whales.
One study conducted in Nunavik showed that 8 out of 10 Inuit women of childbearing age have blood mercury levels that exceed Canada’s health guidelines. We know that mercury damages the brain, but recent studies also show that there may be a connection between prenatal mercury exposure and the propensity to have a lower IQ, leading to more learning difficulties in kids. Inuit children with the “highest exposures to mercury” are four times more likely than those less exposed to have a lower IQ (averaging 5 points lower), and require remedial education.
There is no industrial development in Nunavik. People who live there bear the burden of not only living in food insecurity, but also the contamination of foods that help offset this struggle. And this contamination affects not only the health of those who eat it, but also extends from generation to generation.
It’s all well and good to institute advisories about consuming seafood for fears of mercury contamination, but what is one to do when options are limited, and you must choose between the lesser of two evils? Is there a real choice, when your options are tainted?
Another such example is that of the Makah tribe, located at the northwestern tip of Washington state. The Makah signed the Treaty of Neah Bay in 1855, which explicitly acknowledged their right to hunt whales (in exchange for hundreds of thousands of acres of land). The most recent interruption of the hunt was in the 1920’s, when the tribe voluntarily stopped the hunt because of industrial commercial whaling’s devastating impact on the gray whale population. This interruption is cited as having a detrimental impact on their society that continues to this day.
In 1999, the Makah conducted the first whale hunt in over seventy years, and is the last one to date. It was met with outrage from animal rights activists and conservationists, who took to the water in motorized fishing boats to make noise and disrupt the hunt. Derogatory insults and threats aimed at tribe members heightened tensions further, and the National Guard was finally called in, to permit the hunt to be fully carried out.
Anti-whaling activists filed a lawsuit against the tribe, which resulted in a federal court ruling that permits would be necessary to engage in any further whaling. In response, in 2019, a proposal to officially exempt the Makah from the U.S. whaling ban was submitted to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. If the proposal is accepted, the tribe would be able to catch up to four Eastern North Pacific gray whales every two years. (This species was officially removed from the endangered species list in 1994, and the population is currently estimated at 27,000.) Clearly, without whales in our oceans, our global marine ecosystem would be doomed. But it is also undeniable that subsistence hunting by Indigenous peoples does not lead to the collapse of precious whale populations.
Outraged anti-whaling activists ask: Why is it necessary to reinstate this practice now? Why not just hold an annual ceremony for whales and nix the hunt, as a neighboring tribe, the Quileute, has done?
But to the Makah, whaling is purely a question of tribal identity and rights. The hunt involves spiritual preparation, including fasting and prayer leading up to it, as well as prayers and thanks to the whale, once caught, for providing for them. The hunt provided not only meat and oil, but also bone, sinew, and gut for use in various products of everyday life. It is a practice that strengthens community bonds. Tribal spokespeople have stated that resuming the whale hunt is more about “fight over restoring Native identity, honoring indigenous treaty rights and respecting age-old traditions.” And so, the legal struggle continues.
External points of view flatten the issue to “Whales good, killing bad.” But what about the human cost of stripping people of their tribal privileges and denying them their rights, yet again?
Many of the ecological concerns behind hunting great whale species to the brink of extinction were largely caused by the very countries that now lead the staunch opposition to it. If it weren’t for the devastating effects of industrial whaling in centuries past, would we be having this discussion now?
As a legacy of the oil-and-bone industry, we are stuck in a “this-or-that” mentality. Either you eat whale, or you don’t. Whaling is either for commercial purposes, a market commodity or purely for subsistence. It is either an industrialized endeavor or a localized, Indigenous practice. Consuming whale meat is either an outdated relic of hard times past, or a sacred right. Whales themselves are either benevolent “super whales,” or dumb sea creatures on par with fish.
What if we weren’t even aware of how we were socialized to interpret some things as inherently “good/right,” and others as “bad/wrong”?
Once we throw something into the “good” or “bad” drawer and lock it shut, we exonerate ourselves from the responsibility of continuing to learn, to think critically, and to accept new information: information that could drive us to reopen those drawers and re-examine what we think we know. But to be calcified into a dichotomous “black-or-white” mentality is to flatten and distort the issue, and most importantly, exclude those that exist in the gray.
I’m not saying that whale meat is for me. I’m not sure I would ever observe the Grindadrap, or chomp into a slice of blubber. But I might be tempted to taste a bit of whale sashimi at a restaurant in Japan, as long as I wasn’t pregnant and I knew where the meat came from. Truth be told, I might do that before going on a whale watching boat. (I am still afraid of them, you know.) And if I ever get the chance to consider eating whale meat, I will be armed with more knowledge than just “Ew! What’s that weird stuff?” And I think that’s a fair start.
How about you? Now that you’ve joined me on this history of whaling and whale meat, would you be tempted to try a morsel of whale meat if it were offered to you?
Future Lari here: If you’re interested in more illustrated food history essays like this, consider checking out my newsletter, RENDERED. It is a continuation of this Food Questions series: free, monthly, in-depth essays, all researched and illustrated by me. Thanks!
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