Japan understandably loves sea mammals. After all, they're typically adorable and often intelligent. But what many people in Japan appear to love about them most is how delicious they are.
The annual dolphin hunt in the country's notorious Taiji cove was again a source of controversy this past January. Recently appointed US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy even caused a minor diplomatic stir when she tweeted that she was “deeply concerned” by the "inhumanness" of the practice.
Japan has also raised the ire of the world with its annual whaling “research," when Japanese fishing boats head to Antarctica to study whales by killing a bunch of them. They then bring the meat back home and attempt to sell it even though, in reality, there’s little demand for whale meat in Japan.
Recently, the Japanese have found more cute sea mammals to consume — sea lions and seals. Endangered sea lions and seals. Government sources estimate several hundred of them are eaten each year, though it's not clear if anyone is truly keeping track of how many are killed.
According to Greenpeace, there are about 85,000 Steller sea lions left in the north Pacific. The species is endangered in Alaska, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has them on their Red List. “Steller sea lions were the most abundant marine mammal until their precipitous decline in the early 1980s," Greenpeace has stated. "The reasons for the decline are not known.”
To discover one potential reason, all you need is a can opener.
Sea lions and seals are being hunted and killed off the shores off Hokkaido, Japan and then showing up in souvenir stores and on websites like Rakuten, Amazon Japan, and Yahoo!. There, shoppers can find the animals swimming … in curry sauce. (If seafood isn’t your thing, you can opt for the brown bear, which is also an endangered species.)
But it's not a huge money-making venture. “There are tourist shops that sell canned seal and sea lion, but I wouldn’t consider this the most popular souvenir choice,” said Masahide Obura, a spokesman for the food-related industry office at the Hokkaido Prefectural office. Instead, selling the meat may be a way to earn a little money after slaughtering the animals to prevent them from disrupting Japanese fishermen. An August 2012 government report found that sea mammals do $22.3 million of damage a year by ripping through fishing nets and eating the fish fishermen are after.
That's no doubt why the colorful packaging on the cans warns, “Beware of frequently appearing sea lions!” And as one web site selling canned sea lion informs the buyer, “Sea Lions are called the ‘gangsters of the ocean’; they break through nets, consume huge amounts of fish. They’re the archenemy of the fisherman. However, in Hokkaido they are a delicacy. In order to preserve the deliciousness, they’re boiled the traditional Japanese way (with ginger, miso, sugar).”
So for a mere 735 yen (about $7) you can not only battle the scourge that is the sea lion, you can enjoy their savory flesh — cooked Japanese style!
OKAY, WE ATE THEM
We purchased a can of sea lion curry and a can of seal curry from a store in Tokyo called Village Vanguard. The curry, still retaining the cylindrical shape of the can, landed in the pot with a plop and infused the kitchen with the briny scent of Japan’s northern coast.
First, we gave the sea lion a go. The meat was tender, with a texture similar to that of lamb. The saltiness of the meat was subtle and not completely overpowered by the strong spices in the curry. In a nutshell, it was pretty good. However, while eating both sea lion and seal is a crime against nature, eating seal is also a culinary evil.
Seal curry simply shouldn’t exist. Both because of how unethical it is to hunt, kill, and eat endangered species, but also because all the curry spices and hot peppers in the world couldn't mask the unbelievable reek and taste of the blubbery seal.
We decided to ask the company that sells these cans of curried endangered species, Sapporo's Hokuto Corporation, to explain why they're doing it.
Stellar sea lions looking delectable in Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
“We’re a small company, so we don’t really have the manpower or time to take media requests,” said a representative who declined to give his name. “If we allowed one media company to interview us, then we have to allow the rest the same privilege, so we make no exceptions at all.”
He did add that all the sea lion and seal meat is hunted in Hokkaido Prefecture, and that you can get a sweeter deal on the meat if you buy in bulk.
IS THIS LEGAL?
In 2002, amid debate over changes to Japan’s Wildlife Protection Act, the director of the Resources Enhancement Promotion Department in the Fisheries Agency told a member of the Upper House Environment Committee that he didn’t think Steller sea lions were in the “critical situation of being considered an endangered animal,” because data showed that the population of sea lions in Japan had increased, according to the newspaper Yomiuri. But this was only half the story; the Stellar sea lion population had increased in Japan, but only because sea lions had migrated closer to the shores due to global warming. The population of sea lions in the Far East as a whole has actually decreased sharply.
Seals and sea lions wound up being covered as endangered species. But in 2009, the Ministry of Environment downgraded sea lions from a Class 2 endangered species to a near-endangered species. Why? Maybe it’s because they’re not as adorable as seals. They have a loud bark and unruly facial hair, and they have definitely never had a cute mascot called Tama-chan floating around in Tokyo waterways to remind people to not kill and eat them. Sea lions are also far more likely to destroy fish nets and gobble up the local fish population.
So sea lions are no longer protected in Japan — but seals still are, which means hunting them for consumption is illegal. Coincidentally enough, you don’t see the seal meat curry being offered on Hokuto’s website. We dug up a 2004 newspaper article from Mainichi about a seafood processing company in Hokkaido that announced they'd stopped producing seal products, and that canned seal had vanished from the shelves. Times have changed.
You'd think the Japanese would know better. They hunted the country's only indigenous sea lion to extinction in 1973.