Search the Site

Episode Transcript

Stephen DUBNER: I’ve never eaten whale — as far as I know. Have you? 

Bjorn BASBERG: Uh, yes. I’m afraid if I dare to say that on American radio. But I — yes, I have.

Bjorn Basberg is an economic historian at the Norwegian School of Economics in Bergen.

BASBERG: Bergen is the second largest city in Norway. A hundred years ago or more, it was the capital of Norway. And the people in Bergen, they tend to think that they are still the capital.

Basberg recently retired from his department.

BASBERG: Actually in Norway it’s mandatory. So I turned 70, that’s the mandatory age of retirement. 

DUBNER: You have more time for whaling expeditions, at least. 

BASBERG: Not whaling expeditions, but maybe expeditions. So I go to Antarctica once in a while, to at least study the whaling heritage there. I’ve been, actually for 30 years now, involved with industrial archeology projects in Antarctica, especially the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia, that was for many years a center of Antarctic whaling. 

So Basberg’s primary activity around whaling is research — but, as we heard, he has also eaten his share.

BASBERG: It tastes quite good if you put it on the barbecue, on the grill. It’s like a beef. So, it’s tasty. And you can also eat it in thin slices, raw, as — 

DUBNER: Carpaccio?

BASBERG: Sort of carpaccio, yes. When we as kids had whale meat served by our mothers, we didn’t like it very much. It had sort of a cod liver oil taste. It depends very much how you treat it. If you go to Japan, I remember I saw a book of recipes for whale in Japan, and there were several hundred recipes, and they are using every bits and pieces of the whale in a very different way than we are used to here in Norway.

Although whale-hunting has happened for centuries in just about every place near an ocean, today there are just three countries where commercial whaling is still practiced: Norway, Japan, and Iceland. But it’s no longer a big business. Norway today has only about a dozen whaling ships, which take in some 500 whales a year. In our previous episode, we learned how big the whaling industry used to be, especially in 19th-century America:

Nathaniel PHILBRICK: This was early capitalism, unleashed on the high seas.

Eric HILT: It was an extremely lucrative and important industry.

But by the late 19th century, the American whaling industry collapsed. Whale oil had lit the world for decades, but it was being replaced by fossil fuels and, eventually, electricity. As for the meat: well, Americans never took to whale meat. But the biggest driver of the U.S. whaling collapse was the dynamism of the American economy: there were too many new jobs that paid better and were safer than working on a whale boat. But when America faded from the scene, commercial whaling didn’t end; in fact, it got bigger and bigger, well into the 20th century. The jobs just went elsewhere.

BASBERG: In terms of the national economy, it was substantial for the Norwegian economy for some years. 

Today on Freakonomics Radio, we continue our series “Everything You Never Knew About Whaling.” First, we find out what it was that made tiny Norway a world leader.

Eric HILT: The thing about these whales, they tend to sink quickly.

We’ll hear why most countries abandoned whaling, and why the outliers didn’t:

Jay ALABASTER: They just saw this as another swing against them in a long string of that from the West. 

And we’ll hear from the whales themselves.

Kate O’CONNELL: They were actually singing songs.

Seriously: songs.

*      *      *

The International Whaling Commission, or I.W.C., is a volunteer body “responsible for the management of whaling and conservation of whales.” That mission essentially translates into a global moratorium on commercial whaling. Norway, Japan, and Iceland don’t abide by this moratorium; whales are also still hunted by indigenous groups in the U.S., Canada, Russia, Greenland, Indonesia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Denmark. In those places, whale products typically aren’t sold on the open market, and the I.W.C. considers indigenous hunting a sustainable practice. Among commercial whalers, Norway remains the largest — and they, too, say their whale-hunting is sustainable. The fact is, there isn’t much demand for their whale meat — in Norway, or elsewhere. And what about the ethics? Here, again, is Bjorn Basberg:

BASBERG: I’ve decided never to take any strong position on this at all. My perspective on the whaling industry is to try to understand the history and to explain it historically.

DUBNER: Norway did abide by the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on whaling until 1992, but then left, or chose to no longer honor that agreement. What can you tell us about that? 

BASBERG: Well, that was obviously very controversial internationally. And the protests were huge — I think the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had a very difficult time in defending the Norwegian position. There were huge campaigns, of course, in your country especially, but also all over the world. But the government’s view at the time was that this was an industry with a history, it’s sustainable, and it was almost compared with indigenous whaling in Greenland, in Alaska, which is still going on.

DUBNER: Since there’s not much demand for whale meat, or whale oil, why is there still any whaling in Norway? I’ve read one reason may be that whales eat a lot of herring and Norwegians also eat a lot of herring, and Norway wants to keep the herring supply high by limiting the whale predators. Is that true? 

BASBERG: Uh, it could be an argument, but I’ve never really heard that, and I don’t think that’s a well-justified argument. I think the main justification in Norway is that it’s still an interest in those communities to keep on with the industry. And the government has said that it’s fine. 

Basberg himself comes from one of these communities, a small coastal city called Sandefjord. The city’s coat of arms shows a lone whaler standing on the prow of a ship, a harpoon raised in his arms.

BASBERG: That was in a way, the New Bedford of Norway, the whaling capital there. 

New Bedford, Massachusetts, was at one time the capital of America’s whaling industry, and accordingly it was the richest city per capita in the U.S. As for Sandefjord and Bjorn Basberg:

BASBERG: I grew up in the 1960s, and the industry was in decline. It was never an alternative for me to become a whaler. But I studied at the business school, and I developed an interest for economic history.

DUBNER: And what is it about whaling as an industry that particularly appeals to an economist?

BASBERG: Well, as any industry, there are all sorts of interesting questions, of course. But I guess my interest was, although I’m an economist, it was the technology, I think. 

DUBNER: Pardon my ignorance, but when I think of whaling — I know probably about as much as the average person knows about whaling, which is to say very, very, very little — and I wouldn’t necessarily think of whaling and technology going together. Plainly, I am wrong.

BASBERG: American whaling, of course, that was rather primitive in terms of technology, with the whaling ship out there on the ocean and then the rowing boats and the harpooner and, rather simple, the struggle with the whale. What has been called modern whaling — my colleagues and I, we like to talk about it more as industrial whaling, it’s not so modern anymore. But at the time, of course, it was modern. My thesis was about whaling and patents, and that, in a way, I have stuck with ever since. And of course patents, that is about technology and inventions and innovations. This new technology was about employing steamships, which had not been used in whaling. The actual catching then involved a very powerful large harpoon, or cannon, one could say, with a explosive grenade that killed a whale. So, it was very, very different from the old-style whaling. 

This harpoon cannon was invented in the 1860s by a Norwegian whaling magnate named Sven Foyn.

HILT: So exactly at the time when the Americans were abandoning whaling in the late 19th century, the Norwegians were taking it up. And establishing what we know today as the modern whaling industry. 

And that is Eric Hilt, an American economic historian who also specializes in the economics of whaling.

HILT: So to do that, you needed to use very different methods, and you produced different products.

While Americans had hunted across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the supply of whales there had fallen. The Norwegians, with their powerful steamships, hunted all the way down in Antarctica. This offered a new supply of whales that were even bigger than what the Americans hunted. The Norwegians went after humpback whales and, the biggest mammal of all, the blue whale.

HILT: The American whaling industry couldn’t touch it. If they managed to harpoon it, it would just drag them away forever.

The Americans had a name for being dragged across the ocean by a harpooned whale: they called it a Nantucket sleighride.

HILT: It could drag the whole whaling ship. The other thing about these whales is that they tend to sink quickly. The Americans would kill a sperm whale and sort of tow it back to the vessel. You couldn’t do that very easily with this gigantic blue whale. So you not only need a cannon, but you need some kind of powerful device to actually bring the whale carcass up.

BASBERG: Oh, well, they had a sort of a hose.

DUBNER: You just stick it in the whale?

BASBERG: They stuck it into the whale, yes, basically. 

DUBNER: And then there’s some kind of pump on the whaling ship that pumps air through the hose into the whale — so it’s like blowing up a balloon, essentially? 

BASBERG: Very much so. 

The Norwegian whaling industry kept innovating. By the early 20th century, they built huge whaling ships that Basberg calls “floating factories.” These were accompanied by 10 or 12 smaller ships that were deployed to kill whales and haul them back to the big ship to process the whale oil.

BASBERG: The factory ships was like an average oil tanker at the time. Fifteen thousand tons, 20,000 tons.

DUBNER: Now, technology usually travels quickly, especially in a competitive industry where there’s money to be made. Why did the U.S. whaling industry, and maybe other industries, not adopt these new Norwegian technologies? 

BASBERG: Well, first, other countries did adopt. So Norway was not alone in the 20th century, but Norway was for many years the largest nation. But Britain was a competitor and, and a business partner also. And eventually Japan developed this industry, post-World War II. Germany was large in the interwar years. The Soviet Union. But the Americans never really developed an interest, I should say, for the industry. The American whaling entrepreneurs, they just diverted their interest into other industries, and that had to do with the more macro trends in the development of the American economy. 

Here’s another way to put it: America was getting too rich to bother with whaling, especially the big investors and entrepreneurs. By the late 19th century, there was more money to be made in coal and petroleum and steel; in railroads and real estate; in media and telecommunications. So the U.S. was moving forward, fast, in all those industries. How about Norway? Not so much. Norway did eventually discover its own big oil reserves, and that’s why Norway is rich today. But that wasn’t until the 1960s. If you look back to the 1860s?

HILT: Norway is a very poor country with low wages. It had a low standard of living and the availability of inexpensive oil and also meat was very attractive to them.

And so it was that Norway’s whaling fleet became the largest in the world.

BASBERG: Whaling was an opportunity for when the alternative was unemployment, really. In terms of the national economy, it was substantial for some years. They earned foreign exchange, because most of the products were sold abroad. Some years, the revenues from whaling was larger than from the fisheries.

DUBNER: Do you have any idea what share of G.D.P. the whaling industry may have represented at its peak?

BASBERG: As an economist, I should give you a very precise figure, but between, between 5 and 10 percent, I think never more than that. But that is substantial for one particular industry. The product was always about oil. 

Whale oil, as we heard in our previous episode, had been used for decades as a lighting fuel and as industrial lubricant. By the 20th century, demand was falling, since there were other, cheaper products on the market. But the whaling industry found other uses for its oil.

BASBERG: The main buyers for the whale oil throughout the 20th century was large companies in Europe, like Unilever, and in the United States, like Procter & Gamble, that processed the oil further and sold it to — well, the margarine industry.

That’s right: whale oil was a main ingredient in everyone’s favorite 20th-century butter substitute: margarine.

BASBERG: So that was really the main product. Whale meat was never really a product as such. That was always very marginal. 

DUBNER: Okay. So the flesh of the whale was simply more valuable for its oil value than its meat value. 

BASBERG: Oh, definitely. 

But soon enough, whale meat did become more valuable, at least in some places. And all it took was a world war.

ALABASTER: So, after World War II, Japan is not in good shape. 

So, off to Japan we go.

*      *      *

When Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945, putting an end to World War II, American forces under General Douglas MacArthur occupied Japan and took the lead in rehabilitating the nation.

ALABASTER: Japan is not in good shape, obviously. People are starving, literally.

That is Jay Alabaster, an American journalist and doctoral candidate who lives in Japan.

ALABASTER: It was a first-world country that had just been smashed because of the war. So they are very hard up for food and protein sources. And they don’t have a long history of eating meat.

So MacArthur ordered the Japanese to go all-in on whale-hunting. There was at least a little bit of self-interest here.

NEWSREEL: Whale hunt will help alleviate Japan’s food shortage, and ultimately save over $20 million for American taxpayers.

ALABASTER: It’s not an exaggeration to say that whales saved the country for a few years, just to actually feed the hungry nation that was recovering. And at that time, it was also served in school lunches.

But there was a problem: just as whale meat became a critical component of Japan’s recovery, the world was running out of whales.

ALABASTER: Whale numbers were down to 100th, 1,000th of what they were at the peak. 

All the technology that gone into whaling — all that mechanization and industrialization — it had decimated the global whaling population. During the 20th century alone, an estimated three million whales were killed, led by Norway, Japan, the Soviet Union, and Britain. But plainly that couldn’t continue. And this is what led, in 1946, to the establishment of the International Whaling Commission. Fifteen of the biggest whaling countries got together to regulate how many whales could be killed.

ALABASTER: In the beginning, the I.W.C. is for the orderly development of the whaling industry. So, it’s a very pro-whaling, pro-industry organization, where a group of nations get together and try to figure out how to preserve this resource.

The I.W.C. today is an anti-whaling organization; it advocates for a total ban on commercial whaling. But back then, it was trying to reach a happy medium. The problem was, they didn’t have any real power to tell a given country how many whales they could kill. Instead, the I.W.C. set a global quota. And this had an unintended — and perverse — consequence.

ALABASTER: They called it the whaling Olympics. It caused these fleets to go out and catch as many big whales as they could as fast as possible.

The 1960s turned out to be the peak of global whaling. Some species were by now close to extinction, including the right whale, the humpback, and the blue whale. But then things began to change for the whales. If you were around way back in 1970, you might remember a record album called Songs of the Humpback Whale. It was a pretty big hit.

O’CONNELL: I remember that National Geographic included a disc, a 45, inside one of their editions so that people could listen to humpback whale songs.

That is Kate O’Connell. She’s a policy advisor with the Animal Welfare Institute, one of the oldest conservation groups in the U.S.

O’CONNELL: They were actually singing songs. And I think they captivated the imagination of people around the world.

O’Connell says the album also shifted the public’s thinking toward whales by showing the complexities of their behavior. The rise of this pro-whale sentiment fit in nicely with the rise of the conservation movement generally. This was an era when the value of clean air and clean water was becoming more visible, and more important. There was also the sense that preserving whales — rather than hunting them — just made sense, given how the global economy had evolved. Humankind had found cheaper and easier sources for fuel and food; so why don’t we just celebrate the whale as a beautiful, free animal? In 1970, the folk singer Judy Collins recorded a traditional whale-hunting song, with backing vocals by the humpbacks.

Judy COLLINS: We’re bound off for Greenland and ready to sail. In hopes to find riches in hunting the whales.

Soon after, the U.S. banned commercial whaling under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. And the new environmental group Greenpeace made its mark by launching a movement called “Save the Whales.”

Paul WATSON: It always has been my lifelong ambition to eradicate whaling from the planet. 

That is Paul Watson, a self-described eco-warrior. We met him in the first episode of this series.

WATSON: Back in 1975, when I was with Greenpeace, we intervened against the Soviet whaling fleet in the Pacific Ocean. 

Watson was on a ship that tried to stop a Soviet ship from killing a whale:

WATSON: They had harpooned this large bull whale. And he turned, he swam right underneath us, and threw himself up at the bow of the Soviet vessel. And they were waiting for him. And pulled the trigger, sent an explosive harpoon into his head, and the whale fell back into the water, rolling in agony on the surface. There’s blood everywhere. And I caught his eye. And suddenly he dove, and he came straight towards us. He came up and out of the water at an angle, so that the next move is to fall down and crush us. And as his head rose up out of the water and I looked into his eye, which is right there so close, I could see my reflection of myself, in that eye. As he rose up out of the water, I felt that the whale understood what we were trying to do, because I could see the effort he made to pull himself back and he began to sink back into the sea. His eye disappeared beneath the surface, and he died. He could have killed us, and chose not to do so. 

Whether the whale actually chose to not kill Paul Watson isn’t something we can fact-check. Anyway …

WATSON: But it also got me to thinking, “Why? Why were we killing those whales?” The Soviets were killing sperm whales for spermaceti oil and sperm oil. They’re not edible. And the primary use for that was in the construction and maintenance of intercontinental ballistic missiles. 

This is something we can fact-check. It is true that the Soviets used sperm whale oil for military purposes, but they also killed lots of other kinds of whales, mostly to comply with the directives of their centrally planned economy. There wasn’t much demand for whale oil or meat in the Soviet Union. But you can see why an activist like Paul Watson might find it attractive to combine whale-saving with military disarmament.

WATSON: And I said to myself, “Here we are destroying these incredibly beautiful, intelligent, self-aware, sentient beings for the purpose of making a weapon meant for the mass extermination of human beings.” And that’s when it just struck me: we’re insane. So I said to myself, from then on in, I’m going to do this for them. Not for us, but for them. 

News of Paul Watson’s encounter with the Soviet ship helped drive the Save the Whales movement. But Watson’s confrontational tactics weren’t well-received within Greenpeace, and he was ousted by their board. He continues to use similar tactics today, under the name of the Captain Paul Watson Foundation. He says that direct action — like interfering with whaling ships or even sinking a whaling ship — is justified by the horror of whale-hunting.

WATSON: Our bottom line is we don’t hurt anybody. It’s a strategy called “aggressive nonviolence.”

DUBNER: I’m curious to know whether you interact or have interacted much with whalers directly, and tried to understand their perspective. 

WATSON: I’ve had many sit-down debates with whalers — ex-whalers in Australia, whalers in Norway, many at the International Whaling Commission. Not with the Japanese. They just refuse.

We tried ourselves, for months, to sit down with whalers to hear their perspective. Apparently, the few remaining commercial whalers are so used to seeing their industry portrayed as barbaric that they avoid speaking publicly. We did finally hear from one Norwegian whaler who may be willing to speak with us — but that came too late for this episode. If that interview does happen, we’ll let you know. In the meantime, we will get back to Jay Alabaster to hear how he gained the trust of Japanese whalers.

*      *      *

In 2009, the world was shocked to see the Japanese whaling industry on the big screen.

Ric O’BARRY: Right now, I am focusing on that one little body of water where that slaughter takes place.

It was a documentary film called The Cove.

Ric O’BARRY: If we can’t stop that, if we can’t fix that, we can forget about the bigger issues.

The film was about dolphin hunting in the town of Taiji. In case you’ve forgotten middle-school biology: yes, dolphins are whales; they, along with porpoises and a variety of bigger animals that we call whales, all belong to the Cetacean infraorder. Anyway, the film follows Ric O’Barry, a dolphin trainer-turned-anti-whaling activist, critiquing the practice of whale-hunting in Japan. Back in the States, The Cove was nominated for an Academy Award. Jay Alabaster, the American journalist we met earlier, was living in Tokyo; the Associated Press sent him to Taiji.

ALABASTER: Someone had to be in the town in case it won. So I went to the town to cover it, and talk to people and just get their reaction. Taiji is one of the few locations where whaling has basically gone on uninterrupted for several centuries. It was a really remote little town. When I got there, no one would talk to me. So I was walking around this town, which was amazingly beautiful and remote and quaint. And people were incredibly nice. No one was rude to me or threatening or anything, but no one would answer any of my questions or anything. 

Taiji did not like the attention the film had brought.

ALABASTER: They had already gone through the protests of Greenpeace, and the anti-whaling movement. They just saw this as another anti-whaling swing against them, in a long string of that from the West. In order to speak to the fishermen and the community members, I had to kind of involve myself in the society. There’s 12 of them that kind of run the boats, and it’s a union. So they all have equal power. So they all have to agree. So I had to give this speech in front of them, you know, tell them why I wanted to do this and what I hoped to accomplish. And they debated and debated. And finally, I was allowed to hang out with them before and after they went on the hunts. 

In Taiji, whaling is done using a method called drive hunting.

ALABASTER: As long as the weather is acceptable and they don’t have something else going on, they’ll go out every single morning. There’s 12 boats if they’re all operating. And they kind of spread out in a fan, with Taiji at its center. And they go out about 15 miles at a relatively slow speed. And they’re just scanning, scanning, scanning the horizon, looking for birds or spouts, anything to give them a hint that there’s one of the species that they’re allowed to catch. And if one of them finds a species, he’ll call it in on the radio. And the 12 will have, like, an impromptu conference on their wireless radios. And if they decide to go for it, they’ll all assemble behind the pod. And they’ll line up the boats. And then they have these metal poles that are kind of flanged at the bottom. And they’ll put the flanged side into the water. And they’re very long. They’re very coordinated. They’ll just push the pod slowly, slowly, slowly towards Taiji. And then they get them to a certain cove, you know, “the cove,” and seal it off with ropes and then either take the animals for meat or live for show animals. That’s one thing that’s unique in Taiji is that because they do this method of hunting, the animals aren’t killed at sea. 

Alabaster tried to learn about the economics of whaling in Taiji.

ALABASTER: The prices are quite hidden. They’re not published anywhere, so it’s quite difficult to get a hard read. But it’s very clear that the live animals are worth far more than the animals that they sell for meat. They only actually eat two commonly. The short-finned pilot whale and the striped dolphin are the two that are celebrated. And one of those animals will go for between $500 and $1,000, I think, for meat. But another animal, say, a bottlenose dolphin, which is the show animal that you often see in aquariums, kind of the Flipper, you know, they can go for $10, $20,000. So there’s a huge difference there. 

The film about Taiji whaling condemns both the killing of whales for meat and selling them to a dolphinarium.

Ric O’BARRY: When I started out, there were only three dolphinariums. Today it’s become a multi-billion dollar industry. And all of these captures, they helped create the largest slaughter of dolphins on the planet. 

Matt DAMON: And the winner is … The Cove

That right, The Cove won the Oscar for best documentary. Taiji, and Japan more generally, were almost universally chastised for allowing whaling to continue. Jay Alabaster, having seen things from the inside, felt there was a bigger story to be told, so he decided to get a Ph.D. in journalism and mass communications. He’s currently writing his dissertation.

ALABASTER: Yeah. So, it’s kind of how the domestic and the international media cover this little town of Taiji, the debate that swirls around it, and the history of the town itself. 

Since the beginning of the anti-whaling movement, Japan has often been the primary target — much more so, for some reason, than Norway or Iceland. When the International Whaling Commission declared an outright ban on commercial whaling in 1982, Japan objected — and allowed its whaling industry to continue, supposedly for research purposes. In 2019, Japan left the I.W.C., and resumed commercial whaling. This prompted Boris Johnson, soon-to-be prime minister of the U.K., to publish an opinion piece with the headline “Why Is There Not More Outrage About Japan’s Barbaric Practice of Whaling?” Japan’s chief cabinet secretary at the time, Yoshihide Suga defended the decision. “Engagement in whaling,” he said, “has been supporting local communities … In its long history, Japan has used whales not only as a source of protein but also for a variety of other purposes.” These included fertilizer and insect repellent, musical instruments and board-game pieces. But Jay Alabaster has seen how weak Japan’s defensive arguments can seem in the face of anti-whaling activism.

ALABASTER: There are these powerful environmental groups. And when I say “powerful,” I don’t mean in a negative way. They’re just powerful, and they apply the pressure to kind of tweak the world in the way that they want. And they’re often very successful. And a little town like Taiji, which has 3,000 people and no international presence, there’s no one there that really does social media officially. In looking historically, those towns don’t tend to do so well when the kind of pressure that is applied in Taiji has applied to them. But Taiji was very robust, held up, received incredible domestic assistance. 

O’CONNELL: I think for Japan, it comes down to the fact that they’ve always been very concerned that if there’s a successful end to whaling, what does that then mean for other parts of their fisheries industry?

That, again, is Kate O’Connell, from the Animal Welfare Institute.

O’CONNELL: And in particular, tuna. They’re very focused on their tuna industries, and so they’re very nervous that, you know, will they then come after our tuna?

There’s one big difference to point out: global demand for tuna is strong. For whale meat? Not so much.

ALABASTER: All the fishermen in Taiji talk about this time in the ‘80s and ‘90s when the prices were incredibly high. And in one season, they would make enough to buy a house.

Jay Alabaster says that whale meat now gets maybe one-third, or even less, the price it used to sell for. That’s good news if you eat whale meat.

ALABASTER: Whale is served across Japan, and has regional varieties. One common one is called tatsuta-age. It’s like fried whale, which is the easiest to eat. Whale has a certain, flavor to it and if you’re not used to it, it’s not good. I have trouble with it as well. So it’s kind of seasoned to disguise that. The raw whale — though this just sounds, from a Western perspective, it just sounds awful — but Japan has a long history, obviously, of eating raw fish. And they eat whale that’s been freshly caught lightly cooked or not cooked at all. And if you’re a meat-eater like I am, it is incredible meat when it’s still fresh. 

But, Alabaster says, the overall amount of whale meat consumed, even in Japan, is very small.

ALABASTER: So the average person eats — it doesn’t even register on the decimal, that 0.00 percent of their diet is whale. I don’t know what would be an equivalent in the U.S., but maybe if you saw a rabbit on the menu or something like that, you’d think, oh, that’s interesting — or crawdad, or something like that. You know, you wouldn’t be floored, but you’d think, Oh, that’s kind of interesting. They have crawdad.

But here’s the thing: in Japan, even if you don’t eat whale, you may not want whale-hunting to end.

ALABASTER: Polls have shown that most people, I think 60 or 70 percent of people, support whaling or Japan’s right to whale, even if they don’t eat whale themselves. In broader Japan, there is no question that the outside pressure has given a huge boost to whaling. It’s one of the few issues I’ve seen in Japan where, across the political spectrum, there is support for whaling. 

WATSON: The Japanese can always say, “Well, this is our tradition.” 

That, again, is the longtime anti-whaling activist Paul Watson.

WATSON: When a species becomes endangered, like the bowhead, there can be no justification for any tradition, any culture. My personal position is I’m opposed to the killing of any whale by anyone, anywhere, for any reason. 

DUBNER: Do you feel that the war against whaling has been won, essentially? 

WATSON: No, but, we certainly have had an impact. A number of countries that were whaling when I began are no longer doing it, like Spain and Australia and Chile. But, Japan, Norway, and Iceland have just flauntingly ignored that. 

ALABASTER: Before I came to Taiji, I had this impression that it was just one of these topics that gets dragged out of the closet every once in a while to hold up, you know, “This is our culture.” But when you come to these little communities, it’s very clear that it’s a small section of Japan, but there is definitely a living, thriving whaling culture. I believe that this is a sustainable practice. The arguments against it are much more moral than economic or environmental, I would say.

Back in Norway, the whaling economist Bjorn Basberg agrees that moral arguments are driving the whaling debate these days. But as we all know, there is no universal scale of morality.

BASBERG: In Norway, I think the typical attitude would be that we are eating and slaughtering all sorts of animals. And the whales are no more than an animal. It’s a large one, of course, but it’s not more special than other animals. 

That said, the era of Big Whaling is plainly over, at least for now.

BASBERG: My feeling is that the industry is struggling in many ways. They are struggling to find a market. It’s not a huge demand for whale meat in Norway. We do export some whale meat to Japan. We are allowed to do that. But that’s also fairly limited. The quota for the last few years has been around 1,000 whales that could be killed, and the kill has only been like 500. And that is not because there are not enough whales out there, but there are not enough whalers.

So are we about to enter a post-whaling world? And what if I told you that humans are still killing hundreds of thousands of whales a year — but not by hunting them?

O’CONNELL: We’ve had all these whales washing up on shores or being found floating dead. 

Coming up next time: how dangerous to whales are offshore wind farms? How about noise pollution? And fishing nets? Also: why is it still a good idea to read Moby-Dick?

BLUM: There’s a headline early in the novel that says, “Bloody battle in Afghanistan,” “Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.”

And: was a 19th-century whaling crew more ethnically diverse than your 21st-century office? All that in the third and final episode of “Everything You Never Knew About Whaling.”

*      *      *

Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Zack Lapinski and mixed by Greg Rippin, with help from Jeremy Johnston. Our staff also includesAlina Kulman, Daria Klenert, Eleanor Osborne, Elsa Hernandez, Emma Tyrrell, Gabriel Roth, Jasmin Klinger, Julie Kanfer, Katherine Moncure, Lyric Bowditch, Morgan Levey, Neal Carruth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Ryan Kelley, and Sarah Lilley. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra.

Read full Transcript


  • Jay Alabaster, doctoral student at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.
  • Bjorn Basberg, professor emeritus of economic history at the Norwegian School of Economics.
  • Eric Hilt, professor of economics at Wellesley College.
  • Kate O’Connell, senior policy consultant for the marine life program at the Animal Welfare Institute.
  • Paul Watson, environmental activist and founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.



Episode Video