The nation of Japan's cultural heritage behind seafood and its reliance on this natural resource to feed its people runs very, very deep. Combine that with the nationalistic pride that exists amongst the government and industrial institutions, along with the attitudes of a large segment of the population who know what it's like to be an island nation that has had to fend for itself for centuries, and it makes it easier to understand their intransigence when outside nations, particularly from the west, demand they change their ways for the sake of conservation of particular marine species.
Western civilization actually has a somewhat limited seafood menu pallet compared to Japan. What you'll find on the menu in a seafood restaurant on San Francisco's Fishermen's Wharf pales in comparison to what you'll find in a Japanese fish market. Historically, for Japan, marine species = seafood = survival. So, when strident conservation groups come in wagging a finger and demanding a complete cessation without any quid pro quo, based on a perceived higher moral authority on conservation grounds, the recalcitrance or outright defiance by the Japanese people should not necessarily come as any surprise.
An article that ran this past Friday in the Guardian, illustrated the industrial effectiveness of the harbor city of Kesennuma, Japan. In Kesennuma, shark fishing is a major activity, along with fishing for swordfish and tuna. The article highlighted not only the active commercial fishing taking place in this port city but also the protective attitude of the people in keeping their activities off the radar of prying western eyes.
Two leading pro-shark blogs, SharkDivers' and Da Shark, picked up on the story and wrote insightful posts, both noting the importance of viewing the situation from the other person's perspective, in this case, the Japanese. This is the essence of diplomacy: you can only attain your goals if you can show the other side that it is also in their best interests. And when the emotional furor of a conservation issue finally elevates itself to the international arena, then the game subtly shifts from conservation of a species (which still remains an underlying cause) to economic and cultural sustainability. This occurs whether it's a small Pacific island community or an industrial nation like Japan.
When I speak to U.S. audiences on shark conservation, I find that for the most part, the people I am speaking to have not had any shark products, except maybe for an occasional shark steak. They see the pictures of shark finning and are appalled, particularly when the fishermen dump the shark carcass overboard in favor of retaining only the fins. The audience's dander is now definitely up.
Then I ask them, "Have you ever toured a cattle processing plant? Or how about a poultry farm?" If they did, it wouldn't surprise me that it produces a few new vegetarians. Then, to put the cultural aspect in some sort of perspective, I ask them what their reaction would be if Mrs. Paul's brand of fish sticks were to change from cod to haddock. Typically, the reaction is one of "no big deal." Now, let's say instead, turkey is officially banned; no more big basted bird on the traditional Thanksgiving Day table. Their cultural heritage is now being infringed upon, and that's when they begin to get an idea as to the challenge before us.
Non-combative international diplomacy will continue to emphasize that conservation is in the best interests of Japan and all other Asian countries where seafood consumption has been a long-established foundation of their diets. Both sustainability of the species and their industrial economy will depend on long-term planning, initiated by some pressing and game-changing short term measures. Investing in improved, ecologically-sound aquaculture techniques could be the quid pro quo that could reinvent their commercial fishing industry before it collapses from a loss of species - a disastrous result which neither benefits mankind or the planet.
Read about Kesennuma in the Guardian.co.uk.
Read SharkDivers' post on the subject.
Read Da Shark's post on the subject.