One More Reason the World Should Stop Eating Whale Meat: It’s Filled With Pesticides

New documents show that Japan dumped whale meat it bought from Norway because it wasn’t safe for human consumption.

(Photo: Joel Sartore/Getty Images)

Mar 13, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

As activists around the world fight to halt commercial whaling in places such as Norway, Iceland, and Japan, it’s possible that the whales may eventually save themselves.

How? By becoming too toxic to eat.

This week, it was discovered that Japan deemed whale meat purchased from Norway unfit to eat because it contained up to twice the permitted levels of pesticides, likely due to agricultural runoff or leakage from waste storage containers.

Japan dumped the whale meat last year, but nobody knew about it until the Animal Welfare Institute and the Environmental Investigation Agency uncovered Japanese government documents showing that meat imported by two Norwegian companies contained aldrin, dieldrin, and chlordane—all pesticides.

“Japan is right to take action to prevent the import of toxic Norwegian whale meat,” Clare Perry, head of the EIA’s oceans campaign, said in a statement. “However, it should also look to its own cetacean hunts, which provide thousands of tons of toxic whale and dolphin products for unsuspecting Japanese consumers.”

Norwegian officials insisted that their own tests of whale products found low levels of contaminants. “As we see it, it is safe to eat whale meat in Norway,” Grethe Bynes of the Norwegian Food Safety Authority told Agence France-Presse.

This was not the first time that Japanese officials blocked foreign whale products. Over the past decade, Japan has refused Norwegian-caught blubber and meat on a number of occasions, citing health standard violations including elevated levels of PCBs, excessive amounts of live bacteria, and high pesticide counts.

Whale and dolphin meat is also often loaded with mercury. In 2011, the EIA purchased whale meat in Japan and found that one sample contained 21 parts per million of the toxic metal, 50 times above Japanese safety limits.

Commercial whaling is conducted despite an International Whaling Commission moratorium that took effect in 1986. But activists hope that getting the word out about the contaminants found in whale meat will reduce demand and shrink the market into oblivion.

“We hope by spreading awareness of the fact that whale meat has been repeatedly turned away by the Japanese health officials that…companies that continue to hunt and trade whales will finally accept that this is no longer an acceptable or economically viable prospect,” Perry said in an email.

News of the pesticide-laden meat received widespread media coverage in Japan, Norway, and Iceland, according to Kate O’Connell, a marine animal consultant at AWI.

“Tourists traveling in all three whaling countries need to be made aware of these findings,” O’Connell said in an email. Iceland recently began importing Norwegian minke whale meat, much of which is “sold to tourists who mistakenly believe that eating whale meat is an essential part of Icelandic culture,” she said.

Meanwhile, in Japan, whale-meat consumption is falling largely owing to health concerns, and the supply of Japanese-caught whales has also declined.

“The number of whales killed in Japan’s North Pacific hunt has dropped,” O’Connell said. “And for the first time in decades, not a single whale was killed by the Japanese whaling fleet in the Antarctic 2014–2015 whaling season.” That drop-off was due in part to a ruling last March by the International Court of Justice that put tighter regulations on killing whales in the name of “scientific research.” Still, Japan has vowed to resume the Antarctic hunt next season.

In the meantime, O’Connell said she thinks Norway and Iceland will take advantage of the lull in Japan’s whale hunting expeditions.

Activists admit there is still a long way to go. In the past two years, Norway increased exports of minke whale products to Japan, shipping more than 137 tons of meat and blubber. Minke whales are listed as endangered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Last year, Iceland killed 161 whales, while Japan killed 447. But Norway “killed more whales than Iceland and Japan combined,” O’Connell said. “Even the shrinking market for whale meat in Japan represents a greater possibility for sales for Norwegian whalers, who have had difficulties increasing domestic demand for meat.”