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Whale Wars How are whales processed?

posted: 05/15/12
by: Jessika Toothman
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Japanese whalers cut open a Baird's beaked whale, a relatively small species compared to the baleen whales typically caught in Antarctica.
AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama
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The International Whaling Commission requires whalers who set sail in the name of scientific research each year to process as much of their catch as they can — a rule set forth in the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling and drafted in 1946:

"Any whales taken under these special permits shall so far as practicable be processed and the proceeds shall be dealt with in accordance with directions issued by the government by which the permit was granted."

The Fleet

Because of this rule, a typical Japanese whaling fleet consists of smaller boats tasked with catching the whales, as well as a larger boat that serves as research station and processing plant all rolled into one. The catcher vessels aren't equipped with any sort of refrigeration equipment, because as soon as they haul in a whale, they sail it over to the big boat (or a land-based processing plant) as quickly as possible. Norwegian whaling vessels are more likely to chop up the meat and blubber onboard, refrigerate it on ice right away, then haul it back to land for further commercial processing.

The Research

After being caught, a whale is processed quickly. In Japan, some of the organs are retained for study, such as the ovaries, stomach and ear plugs, while the rest of the carcass is frozen, awaiting transport and sale. The organs retained for research teach us a number of things about whales. Observing the laminae in ear plugs helps determine a whale's age — similar to studying the rings on a tree. The ovaries offer researchers lots of information concerning whale reproduction, and digging through the stomach contents lets them determine what whales tend to eat and how much. (The answer, in case you're wondering, is a lot.) Researchers also conduct analyses of several biological parameters including blubber thickness, body length, skull proportions, internal parasites and organ weights, along with taking DNA samples.

Dealing with a whale carcass is no easy task. First, the blubber must be cut off in long strips and then broken down to more manageable proportions. Next, the blubber is rendered (heated to remove the oil), and the extracted oil is cooled, stored, strained and bleached.

Processing a whale — especially at sea — does have its dangers. They include slipping and potentially careening overboard after ship decks become coated with blood and oil, being crushed by huge slabs of blubber, getting sliced open by large cutting tools and being splashed with scalding hot oil. And then there's the permeating — and less than pleasant aroma — that whalers have to whiff while slaughtering and processing a whale.

The Kitchen

Next, the whale meat is prepped for sale. Different numbers of cuts have been popular over the years, with one cookbook from 1832 advising on a whopping 70 cuts. Today, the cuts are much fewer, with typically just two made for belly meat and tail meat. The meat is frequently sold in thin slices that look quite a bit like bacon. Whale meat can be tricky to prepare, though, and while some people prefer to eat whale meat sashimi unadorned, it can also be cooked in other ways, such as whale burgers or whale fish-sticks.

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