Assessing a public health justification for reducing whale consumption in northern Canada.

AuthorJefferies, Cameron


At the start of the 21st century, the relationship between humans and cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) is uncomfortable at best, and, most likely, in an utter state of disrepair. (1) It has not always been this way. Whaling for both cultural and commercial purposes has an extensive history throughout the world. Since the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) (2) was created in 1946 with the goal of "proper conservation of whale stocks ... mak[ing] possible the orderly development of the whaling industry," (3) both the international community and individual nation states have struggled to achieve sustainability in their whaling practices. In 1986, the International Whaling Commission (IWC), created pursuant to the ICRW with a mandate to "keep under review and revise as necessary the measures laid down in the schedule to the Convention which governs the conduct of whaling throughout the world"), established a controversial moratorium on commercial whaling. (4) By the time the IWC moratorium was introduced, Canada already had a domestic commercial moratorium in place but had previously withdrawn from the ICRW because of a dispute regarding Aboriginal bowhead whaling in the Arctic. (5) The IWC recognizes two exceptions to the commercial moratorium: (1) the "Aboriginal Subsistence" exemption which enables indigenous peoples from member nations to hunt for food and fulfill cultural traditions; and (2) the "Scientific Permit" exemption which allows member nations to grant whaling licenses to national research companies (Japan harvests approximately 1,000 whales annually in international waters under the guise of "Scientific Permit" whaling). (6) However, the ICRW lacks jurisdiction to regulate nations who are not party to the convention (like Canada) and, despite purporting to have jurisdiction over all whale species in all whaling waters, custom indicates that the IWC only regulates "great" species (such as grey whales, humpbacks, and 'right' whales) and will not regulate within a nation state's 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as described in Part V of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). (7) Recent whaling commentary has focused on Japanese "Scientific Permit" whaling and in response this paper demonstrates that pressing whaling issues in Canada also demand academic and political attention and, perhaps, regulatory reform.

The following analysis investigates the public health component of the human-cetacean relationship; specifically, whether health concerns surrounding the consumption of contaminated cetacean products warrant, international or domestic regulatory reform. Scientific analysis of whale meat for dangerous levels of mercury, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), and other toxins began as an attempt by environmental nongovernmental organizations (ENGOs) to link human health and whaling as justification for a complete whaling ban. (8) This proposed link has recently been subjected to rigorous scientific testing in Canada, Japan, and Greenland, confirming cetacean product contamination and advancing the hypothesis that regular or prolonged consumption can be acutely and chronically harmful. (9)

Public health is the "process of mobilizing local, state [provincial and federal], and international resources to solve the major health problems affecting communities." (10) Public health concerns surrounding food and corresponding regulatory responses to safeguard populations from food-borne illness can be traced as far back as ancient Egyptian and Hebrew society. (11) Concerns regarding whale meat also engage the modern concept of "environmental health" which "comprises the aspects of human health, including quality of life, determined by interactions with physical, chemical, biologic and social factors in the environment," (12) and whale conservation and human health are increasingly uttered in the same sentence. The tension explored in this paper differs from the Japanese experience where whale meat is considered a delicacy rather than a staple food, since consumption of beluga and narwhal whales forms a crucial element of the diet of many Aboriginal peoples (Inuit, Metis, and Indian). (13) Commentators continue to struggle to balance the benefits and risks of a traditional northern diet against the risks associated with an imported diet. (14) Additionally, whaling supporters often argue that "the right to decide what is acceptable as food has been captured by a small number of Western NGOs [non-governmental organizations] through an exercise of their political power" and that regulating food choice might offend our right to liberty as protected by s. 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (15) This analysis of the public health risk presented by cetacean product consumption in Arctic Canada concludes that both international and domestic regulatory reform is required to meaningfully reduce reliance on this food source and alleviate the threat it presents to Aboriginal communities. It is unfortunate that the traditional northern Canadian way of life has been jeopardized by the pollution from southern agricultural and industrial processes and the unsustainable whaling practices of European and Asian countries. The closely guarded equilibrium that has characterized the relationship between Aboriginals and cetaceans in the Arctic for millennia teeters precariously on the brink of ruin. It now falls to the legal, public health, and Aboriginal communities to craft an appropriate response to this environmental reality of the 21st century.

Part I: "Country Foods", Contamination, and Risk-Assessment

The idea of "country foods" refers to the practice of harvesting "mammals, fish, plants, berries, and waterfowl/seabirds" from local surroundings (16), whereas the theory of "community nutrition" describes the "variety of food and nutrition issues related to individuals, families, and special groups that have a common link such as place of residence, language, culture, or health issues." (17) "Country food" and "community nutrition" intersect, and impact human health, when environmental threats compromise traditional dietary components. (18) Cetacean products qualify as "country foods" for many northern Canadian communities, and the harvest and consumption of cetacean products has exposed northern Aboriginal peoples to health risks associated with cetacean contamination. (19) Northern Aboriginal people continue to hunt for beluga and narwhal from boats, canoes and kayaks (20) and at polynyas (21), and of the 56,000 Aboriginal peoples in northern Canada, approximately 91% of households consume "country foods". (22) One factor that complicates whaling regulation in response to public health concerns is that whaling in the Arctic is connected to all aspects of life--"social, economic, cultural, and nutritional needs". (23) The scientific community continues to investigate the disproportionately high rates of obesity and diabetes in Aboriginal communities, and test whether or not these afflictions are attributable to genetic and metabolic predispositions or are the result of socio-economic and lifestyle discrepancies. (24) Any regulatory body attempting to influence a traditional diet must be cognizant of the fact that "dietary change in situ ... is a gamble with human health," and must address the reality that imported sugary and fatty alternatives to "country foods" may contribute to existing health concerns. (25) This interaction of nutrition, culture, tradition, and health concerns cannot be neglected, and I will return to these issues in contemplation of risk assessment and in the concluding remarks.

It is tempting to picture the Arctic as an undisturbed region...

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