On Sunday, the documentary film The Cove, which exposes dolphin hunting in Japan, won an Oscar. On Tuesday, the film's production team attracted front-page coverage in the New York Times with a cleverly timed sting that exposed whale sushi being served not in Japan, as you might expect, but in Santa Monica.
Almost two decades ago in Japan, I was once taken to dinner at a restaurant that specialized in whale meat by a charming pair of soft-spoken young sisters who had grown up in a Buddhist temple as the daughters of a priest. As I recall, the ladies were under the impression that some strains of Buddhism hold that if you're going to eat an animal, it's morally preferable to kill one really large animal rather than many smaller ones. By their reasoning, eating whale—at least, a species that isn't endangered—is more ethical than eating beef.
The Buddhist ladies and I sampled whale sashimi, among other offerings. It was a long time ago, but although the whale meat tasted a bit like beef, my primary recollection is that it simply didn't have a whole lot of flavor. Afterwards, I found myself craving something a bit tastier—say, a clam.
It's challenging to find the everyday beliefs of your own culture clashing with the practices of another country. As for me, I think the issue of harvesting non-endangered whales, as Japan does (along with Norway and a few others), ought to begin with the same moral concerns I would bring to lobsters and everything else: how sentient is the creature, and how much did it suffer during the process?
Killing a whale yields a lot more meat than killing a cow, but because of a whale's size, I would probably argue that killing one is also inherently more difficult and prolonged than killing a cow. Surely the whale suffers more. Certainly that's the case with low-tech, traditional whaling operations that don't use modern weaponry, such as the Inuit whale hunters in northern Alaska. And yet it is exactly this sort of traditional, subsistence whaling that is probably the one type of whaling that most of us today, myself included, might be willing to condone.
By contrast, consider cows that are processed in substandard slaughterhouses that don't properly stun or kill their animals before butchery. Surely anyone who eats a burger from time to time has inadvertently eaten meat from such a source. How many improperly butchered cows equal, in suffering, the death by whaling of one whale?
More to the point, though, before considering any of these complex moral calculations, I'd have to ask patrons of that sushi bar in Santa Monica a far simpler question—a culinary one. If whale sushi isn't even that tasty, why bother eating it at all?
In my case, nearly 20 years ago, the motivation was curiosity. And somehow the companionship of those lovely Buddhist sisters, who after all were the instigators, made it seem okay. But I'm not sure it was. Nowadays, although I still eat shellfish and fish, along with one or two boutique-y grass-fed burgers a year, when it comes to most mammals, marine or otherwise, I'm increasingly inclined to take cues from another great Buddhist culinary tradition: vegetarianism.