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tins of whale meat

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Moby Dick Chapter 65: The Whale as a Dish

We are continuing to celebrate the Big Read of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick by looking at chapters and exploring where issues in highlighted chapters are now. Below, WDC’s Responsible Whale Watch Program Manager delves into Chapter 65: The Whale as a Dish read yesterday by celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick well over a century and a half ago when whaling was in its heyday. Whilst conceding that whale products have been considered a delicacy in some epicurean circles over the centuries, Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, expresses the belief that “what further depreciates the whale as a civilized dish, is his exceeding richness. He is the great prized ox of the sea, too fat to be delicately good”. Ishmael clearly felt overwhelmed at the prospect of actually eating one of the massive creatures they had caught and comments that “(even) landsmen seem to regard the eating of him with abhorrence” and “only the most unprejudiced of men, like Stubb, nowadays partake of cooked whales.” Ishmael regards his ship-mate Stubb’s willingness to “feed upon the creature that feeds his lamp” as “outlandish” so surely he would be horrified to learn that whale meat is still consumed today in a market that encompasses schoolchildren, tourists and even celebrity chefs.

WDC’s investigations reveal that tourists consume over a third of the whale meat on sale in Iceland’s restaurants and supermarkets and there are even reports of passengers disembarking from a whale watch trip and sitting down to feast upon minke whale meat: ironically the very species they were viewing only hours previously. Celebrity chef, Gordon Ramsay, ate minke whale meat during a visit to Iceland earlier this year, and one of Reykjavik’s top restaurants þrir Frakkar is a firm favourite of Jamie Oliver. Its current menu boasts cured minke whale, peppered minke whale steak and whale meat sashimi; as well as grilled horse meat, smoked puffin and guillemot breasts, and ptarmigan and reindeer pate. Enough, surely, to give poor Ishmael indigestion merely by reading the menu. The problem is even worse in Greenland where joint WDC/AWI investigations earlier this year revealed whale meat dishes, including meat from finback, bowhead and minke whale, were on sale to tourists at 77% of the hotels and restaurants surveyed. Greenland had been allocated a whaling quota by the IWC (International Whaling Commission) solely to meet the nutritional needs of indigenous peoples. The revelation that the meat had instead been sold commercially to tourists helped ensure that Greenland’s bid in July 2012 to increase its whaling quota was voted down at IWC – meaning now they have a zero quota. Moby Dick’s Ishmael clearly knew about indigenous consumption of whale products. His earlier assertion that “only the most unprejudiced of men like Stubb, nowadays partake of cooked whales” is qualified by his comment that “…the Esquimaux are not so fastidious. We all know how they live upon whales, and have rare old vintages of prime old train oil. Zogranda, one of their most famous doctors, recommends strips of blubber for infants, as being exceedingly juicy and nourishing.” These days, the bio-accumulation of toxins and heavy metals including mercury and PCBs in the meat and blubber of whale and dolphin species gives real cause for concern in terms of human health. Greenland’s Nutritional Council advises that women of reproductive age, as well as children, should not eat marine mammals because of high levels of contaminants. This warning is echoed in health advisories issued to pregnant and breastfeeding women, as well as those of childbearing age, in Iceland, Norway and Japan. However, despite the acknowledged health risks associated with consumption of whale products, the meat is still served to school children in Japan and other whaling areas.

About George Berry

George is a member of WDC's Communications team and website coordinator.