How much is Moby Dick worth today?

Whale meat in Japan
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Whale meat in Japan

In the U.S., the price of whale meat could be time in prison. But having whale for dinner is perfectly legal in Japan, where whalers last week set out to hunt and kill the protected marine mammals despite international condemnation.

Whale meat is, of course, hard to come by these days. So how much is it worth in Japan? Not as much as it used to be.

Since the 1986 international ban on commercial whaling, Japan whalers have taken advantage of an exception for scientific research. They catch whales as part of what they call a research program and then sell the meat "byproducts" to consumers. How much that meat sells for depends on the number of whales caught, customer demand and the volume of meat stockpiles sitting in freezers around the country.

In 1985, there were more than 10,000 metric tons of wholesale whale meat for sale at the 10 major city markets in Japan at an average price of about $4 per kilogram, according to government data compiled by The Big Crunch. That was about the retail price of ground beef in the U.S. at that time.

By the early 1990s, fewer than 1,000 metric tons were for sale at those markets, costing more nearly $40 per kilo — more than the retail price of choice filet mignon today.

The survey tracking whale meat prices is only available up to 2006, but news reports in Japan suggest that public demand for whale meat has been waning in the last decade. The price in 2006 was less than 2,000 yen ($16.60) per kilo – nearly back to the lower ground beef prices before the international ban.

That's not altogether surprising, considering that factory whaling ships and widespread consumption of whale meat was first introduced to Japan as a protein supplement by Gen. Douglas MacArthur after the end of World War II.

Avid eaters of the meat, then, tend to be old folks who grew up at that time with whale meat in their school lunches. According to a 2014 survey, only 4 percent said they occasionally ate whale meat and half of all Japanese in their 20s and 30s said they do not eat it at all.

Buying a whole whale

So how much is a single whale worth in Japan these days?

Even if average whale meat prices were still tracked in Japan, it would be hard to estimate because certain parts of the whale are far more valuable than others. The prized tail meat from a fin whale sold at wholesale for 50,000 yen to 60,000 yen per kg during the pricier years. Until a few years ago you could buy whale bacon for 16,250 yen per kg from Japanese online retailer Rakuten and canned whale hamburger for 600 yen on Amazon's Japanese site.

Luckily, the government keeps other economic data that can give us a good per-whale estimate. It tracks the number of whales harvested and the total value of its commercial catch (coastal catches rather than deep-sea catches). If we divide the total value the government assigns by the total catch, we get an estimate of an average whale's worth: in 2013, a whale was worth about 2.7 million yen.

That's down a lot from the 1990s, when a whale was worth twice as much. Based on that measurement, a whale today is worth about the same as it was in the '80s before the international ban.

If we compare an analysis of records from the Institute for Cetacean Research, the quasi-governmental body in charge of organizing whale research, and the reported "scientific" whale catches, the meat sold each year seems to bring in even more — about $50,000 per whale. Those prices at the current catch limits aren't nearly enough to pay for the expenses of the whaling itself.

According to the most recent budgets available, operating expenses for the organization are more than three times the amount brought in by meat sales. ICR has received hundreds of millions in government subsidies to plug the gap, including an infamous $29 million payment from a fund meant to rebuild coastal cities after the 2011 tsunami.

While inventories of whale meat in long-term refrigerated storage (another metric tracked by the Japanese government) built up from 2005 to 2012, smaller catches and sabotage by anti-whaling activists have left those reserves dwindling. In fact, it looks like they could be gone by the end of the year. That means that even the smaller catch planned for Japan's new research program this year (333 minke whales) could sell at a higher price.

Of course, conservationists would likely argue that a whale is worth more than the sum of its meats. According to one measure published by conservationists in Australia, a one country that is strongly against Japan's whaling initiatives, one whale can be worth between $23,000 and $91,000 in revenue for local whale-watching businesses in its lifetime.

Pricing whales to save them

Some scholars have suggested that creating a market for whales could be used to prevent hunting. Instead of spending millions chasing Japanese whalers around the Antarctic Ocean, environmentalists could simply pay groups with hunting rights to keep them alive.

One such model puts the market-derived equilibrium price of a minke whale, which has relatively healthy stocks, at $10,818. Others put minke whales at $13,000 each and much larger fin whales at $85,000. At that price, buying Japan's scientific harvest would cost $4.3 million.

But for many supporters of Japanese whaling, the issue isn't about economic cost as much as cultural imposition.

Despite the meat's waning popularity, 60 percent of Japan's people want whaling to continue. Japan's commissioner to the International Whaling Commission, Joji Morishita, has accused the rest of the world of "ecoimperialism" in its efforts to cut the country's whale killings. Even in 1988, continuing to capture whales in the face of international pressure was described by officials as "a matter of national pride."

Morishita has compared eating whale to Japanese kimonos, a part of Japanese culture regardless of how many Japanese people actually take part on a regular basis. The issue isn't an environmental issue or legal issue, just a case of ethical differences between nations, he said.

"Would we accept it if India launched a worldwide anti-beef eating campaign by claiming that cattle must not be eaten under any conditions?" wrote Morishita in 2002. "Undoubtedly not, yet that is exactly the approach to the whaling issue taken by the U.S., Britain, Australia, New Zealand and others, sometimes even with a threat of economic sanctions."