After being exposed during the Oscars by the producers of The Cove, whale-meat-selling Santa Monica sushi restaurant The Hump was charged late Wednesday by federal officials with violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act. If found guilty, Kiyoshiro Yamamoto, the owner of The Hump’s parent company faces $100,000 fine and up to a year in prison.
Considering the restaurant served up strips of endangered sei whale meat to federal informants in a neighborhood that’s self-consciously eco-conscious, you can pretty well bet Yamamoto & Co will be made an example of. Which is all well and good (they did break the law, after all), but you better wipe that morsel of moral superiority from your chin. I’m looking at you, L.A. Times editorial board. Truth is, you don’t have a leg (or fin) to stand on.
Don’t get me wrong, I think eating whale meat is pretty gross and I’m the kind of person who makes sweetbreads and sucks on bone marrow for fun, but any way you slice it, there’s nothing about serving whale meat that’s any less repugnant (if that’s your stand) than dining on any number of Nature’s astonishing creations.
Take the lowly octopus for example; a staple of not just Japanese cuisine, but most Mediterranean cuisines as well. If you have no problem eating salmon, chicken or beef, chances are, you’re just fine with eating octopus.
Problem is, octopi are one of the smartest creatures (besides, arguably ourselves) on the planet. Scientists have shown them to have a highly complex nervous system, complete with short and long-term memory, the ability to learn through observation and they are the only invertebrate known to use tools. They pick up coconut shells and carry them around to later use as shelters. Compared to an octopus, the sei whale is little more than a whistling bag of fat.
Of course, the octopus is not cute and beloved, so nobody raises the alarm and most octopus are not endangered. If the argument against eating whale meat is not that we’re killing an intelligent creature, but rather a rare one, we still have reason to pause, however.
After all, the U.S. permits Native Alaskans a small allotment of endangered seals to hunt each year, based on it being a part of their cultural history. Sure, there are a lot more Japanese businessmen then there are Eskimos, but whale meat and whale hunting is deeply rooted in Japanese culture.
Which is the whole point. Our national horror at eating whale meat isn’t based on any empirical truths, it’s just a cultural choice we make. Unless you’re a hardcore vegan, you’re making morally shaky decisions every day about what you decide to toss into your pie hole and what you won’t, which is why your outrage at another culture’s preference is ultimately little more than gastronomic nationalism.
After all, how would you feel if the Japanese told you to stop eating beef because the cattle industry is dumping 50 million metric tons of methane into the atmosphere
per cow (UPDATE: As some of you pointed out, this is a total for all cattle, though it is still a hell of a lot) each year, which, even the biggest fans of Flipper would have to admit, is a hell of a lot worse than hunting down a bunch of admittedly adorable whales.