Whale: The Other Red Meat


Peak whale?

In today's Wall Street Journal, whale meat gets reintroduced into the Icelandic diet after the end of a 20-year hunting ban:

In a bid to entice urban hipsters, [Gunnar Bergmann] Jonsson started selling marinated whale meat, vacuum-sealed and ready for cooking….At upscale meat shops, Mr. Jonsson began distributing free recipe cards that read, "A feast for the barbecue or the pan." Recipes include whale pepper steak and whale schnitzel.

Mr. Jonsson believes he can hook people—his age and younger—if they only try the stuff. It looks and tastes like beef but costs about half as much.

After trying a nibble of the other red meat—Moby Dick on a stick whale brochettes are popular with tourists—take a moment to thank the man who really saved the whales: John D. Rockefeller. 

In 1846, Americans dominated the whaling industry with 735 ships. John D. Rockefeller gets into the oil refining business in 1865. By 1876, kerosene is routing whale oil, and the whaling fleet was down to 39 ships, because kerosene was just so darn cheap:

The price of sperm oil reached its high of $1.77 per gallon in 1856; by 1896 it sold for 40 cents per gallon. Yet it could not keep pace with the price of refined petroleum, which dropped from 59 cents per gallon in 1865 to a fraction over seven cents per gallon in 1895. 

This dynamic is also instructive for those fretting that we're going to run out of oil, just as many undoubtedly worried that we were going to run out of whales. (Note to self: Check historical record for instances of the phrase "Peak Whale.")

NEXT: McCain's Interventionist Schizophrenia

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  1. I’m holding for some polar bear ribs. I will NOT compromise on this issue.

  2. Ewww, I dont think so. No way dude.


  3. This dynamic is also instructive…

    Yeah, if the market doesn’t solve everything, dumb luck will!

  4. In a bid to entice urban hipsters

    Whale, the Pabst Blue Ribbon of animal proteins.

  5. I have dissected a porpoise before, and the meat is unbelievably red because they store oxygen for dives in extra hemoglobin in their muscles (plus they have a ton of extra blood). I would love to eat a cetacean, as it looked delicious.

    A friend of mine was in the Navy and came across whale meat in Norway while on shore leave one time. He wanted to buy it but had no way to cook it, and after he told me, I said “you didn’t eat it raw?”

  6. The stone age ended NOT because the world ran out of stones.

    Ditto for various other ages where the predominant material or technology was supplanted by a better or more predominant one.

    I suspect that within the next 5 to 10 years the price of oil and gasoline will drop precipitously because a better idea is coming along: The all-electric car.

    H.F. Wolff

  7. KMW,

    From what I have read camphene was what people adopted when there was a shortage of whale oil. Camphene then had some sort of tax slapped on it about the same time as the production from the Pennsylvania oil wells began to come online for the production of kerosene.

  8. we . . . we have to make a pre-emptive strike against Iceland, it’s . . . it’s . . . oooooh . . .


  9. I’m on a quest to have every edible animal meat in a hamburger. So far, I’m not doing too good (beef, bison, elk, venison, pork only), but I think a whale meat hamburger would look great on my list of hamburgers…

  10. Whale? Whatever. It’s no sea manatee.

  11. Dolphin steaks! Yum!

  12. Had Whale steak in Hokaido, ten years ago, on a research expedition. Since the per diem was so shitty and I was a poor grad student, I lived on noodles and tea the rest of the trip to pay for that Whale. Pretty good, think a lean beef (tenderloin) with a strong fishy aftertaste.

    That steak cost me $80 but it is worth it for bragging rights.

  13. I sampled whale more than 30 years ago in Japan while visiting a cousin. At a restaurant with friends, he proffered a bright red cube. I ate it. Lighter than beef. Rather tasty. Better raw than dipped in hot oil. Midway through dinner I was informed that the meat was whale and not Kobe beef.

  14. I would love a restaurant where you could club your own baby seal before they fry that bitch up for you. Kind of like picking your own lobster from a tank, but with bonus violence.

  15. Outside Magazine, May 2006: Bloody Business

    “Norwegian fishermen call it an honest day’s work. Greenpeace calls it a violent crime. The issue is the annual hunt for North Atlantic minke whales, a plentiful species that, every spring, gets harpooned by the hundreds and then sold in Norway’s seafood aisles. Who’s right? As PHILIP ARMOUR learns during a voyage aboard the whaleboat Sofie, the truth isn’t pretty-but it’s a lot more complicated than you’d think.”

  16. think a lean beef (tenderloin) with a strong fishy aftertaste.

    The strong fishy aftertaste was what turned me off of crocodile meat.

  17. Here’s a video about Peak Whale:

  18. KMW, thank you for this. Lots of us take this info for granted without realizing that nobody is learning this in school.

    Probably because the school is busy turning the grass field into a mud hole and running off those “two minute showers” flyers to send home to the parents.

  19. “Peak oil” does not mean “run out of oil”. It means just what it says: the point at which production peaks. What happens after that depends on whether you believe anything else can be ramped up in time to replace it.

  20. unless oil can mate and reproduce, the whale story has nothing to do w/ whether we are running out of oil.

  21. Uh, yeah, worrying about running out of whales. How, uh, silly. We better “check [the] historical record” to see if anyone worried about running out of whales.


  22. And running out of oil? Madness! Can’t happen. “Nonrenewable” is, like, Latin for “doesn’t go away.” Check the historical records!

    Like with Whales!1@!@

  23. unless oil can mate and reproduce, the whale story has nothing to do w/ whether we are running out of oil.

    Yeah, I didn’t get that either.

  24. unless oil can mate and reproduce, the whale story has nothing to do w/ whether we are running out of oil.

    Had we not discovered how to make cheap fuel from oil whales would be extinct, not mating and reproducing.

  25. I think the point is that the free market handles peak situations by replacing a technology that becomes too expensive with a cheaper one. Less capacity for cheap oil will drive new technologies faster than people screaming “PEAK OIL!1!” every chance they get.

    And, right or wrong, the “peak oil” folks always seem to say it with a sadistic gleam in their eye. As if Road Warrior is an aspirational documentary…

  26. Wait… there’s such a thing as sperm oil? And people will pay for it? Finally, a chance for me to be part of the solution AND get rich in the process!

    Oh, and I think the point of the whale/oil comparison is that, just as whales were saved when the demand for its oil was supplanted with demand for kerosene, so will our energy crisis be solved when our demand for oil is supplanted by a demand for, um, some other energy source we’ve yet to (seriously) consider. Not saying I’m particularly interested in waiting around for that to happen, but it’s an argument frequently espoused ’round these parts (and elsewhere, I should add).

  27. unless oil can mate and reproduce, the whale story has nothing to do w/ whether we are running out of oil.

    Well, actually, it does. On two fronts. Being able to mate and reproduce doesn’t mean you’ll always be around. And, the story is illustrative of how markets work. Besides, we’ve been ‘running out of oil’ for the last eight decades, so there is the boy who cried wolf a billion times factor to overcome.

    There is no question that at some point in time oil will no longer be an economically feasible source of energy. Today, we’re not clear about what may take it’s place. However, it is fairly certain that something will. That’s not faith, it’s a forecast based on observation, some of which is the observation that when whale oil became economically less efficient to produce than petroleum, the market shifted. Absent outright market blockades from Uncle Sugar, that shift *will* take place and it will take form as a market response to the ever increasing scarcity of oil.

  28. Guy Montag has long been an advocate of whale oil, or as it’s known in scientific circles, “cetacean biodiesel.”

    Organic, free range, renewable… what’s not to love?

  29. Organic, free range, renewable… what’s not to love?

    Its my weekly “agree with joe” moment.


  30. This dynamic is also instructive for those fretting that we’re going to run out of oil, just as many undoubtedly worried that we were going to run out of whales.

    Uh, Katherine, I hate to break it to you, but we *are* running out of whales. At least one type. Baleen whales are (with a few notable exceptions) still very endangered. And there are more than a few types of toothed whales that are in a bad way as well. Two minutes at google readily reveals this.

  31. Shem,

    The difference is, we are no longer worried about it. 🙂

  32. I prefer baby seal oil.

  33. I’m game for whale. I better hurry before they run out…

    Just this weekend I had sweetbread, tripe, stingray, and turtle. (but no “baby egg” this time) This is what happpens when you are ~married to a southeast Asian and attend a family get-together. Had to pass on the pigeons (that were still living last I saw them on Sunday) as half the clan (the people, not the birds) went to Cirque Shanghai Gold at Navy pier on Monday. BTW, if anyone ever gets a chance to see the Cirque Shanghai, don’t hesitate. They are incredible. The clips I’ve seen on youtube show the performers being somewhat reserved. (I think maybe they get considerably more daring on the last day’s performance)

  34. a few thoughts:

    1) Great historical backgound. Some day I want to go to a global warming protest with a T-Shirt that reads, “Save fossil fuels; burn whale oil.”

    2) I don’t think I would ever eat whale meat.

    3) Mr. Jonsson can’t understand why people aren’t buying whale meat when it is half the price of beef. I think price is the problem. If whale meat where 5 times the price of beef, hippsters would rush to buy it. After all, who would eat snails if they costed 2 cents a pound?

  35. Killing these intelligent animals just to eat ’em? No, thanks!

  36. I’m going to start a whale farm for biodiesel purposes.

  37. Is anyone else noticing that the “historical background” ends with:

    just as many undoubtedly worried that we were going to run out of whales.

    Posited presumably as a laughable comparison, an absurd suggestion, when THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED.

    I feel like a crazy person. I’m the only one clothed in a nudist colony. This doesn’t take a lot of historical knowledge. This doesn’t even take much more than a passing familiarity with reality. Hell, this doesn’t take much more than having seen Star Trek IV. This is a libertarian blog. I expect everyone here has seen Star Trek IV.

  38. followup: please make this the latest meme in global warming denialist circles. “huh huh, sure, just like we almost ran out of whales. huh huh.” It will make winning arguments much simpler.

  39. MAX HATS,

    We didn’t run out of whales, we ALMOST ran out of whales. If JDR didn’t start marketing kerosene when he did, there was a good possibility that we would have indeed run out of whales.

    The reason why can be stated by any competent libertarian-leaning economist: whales were a commons. Without private ownership of whales it was a rush to get to the whales before your competitor did. Ditto for the Bison. Bison are no longer in danger of extinction, because they are now privately owned. We now have the technology to electronically “brand” whales. Perhaps we should consider whale ranching.

  40. Brandybuck,

    I completely agree. I just implications of the blog post very odd. It’s common knowledge that whales almost went extinct, and it seems to me this line:

    just as many undoubtedly worried that we were going to run out of whales.

    flies in the face of that. Furthermore, while American whaling went into a death spiral from the petroleum industry, it took (horror of horrors) the environmentalist movement to put the kibbosh on whaling internationally, leading directly to the whale populations’ recent recovery.

  41. Its my weekly “agree with joe” moment.

    Its practically RC’z Second Law – everyone will agree with joe once per week. Its how he sucks you in.

  42. How about oil pressed from breast tissue?

    Would that work for you, katie?

  43. “If JDR didn’t start marketing kerosene when he did, there was a good possibility that we would have indeed run out of whales.”

    I could be mistaken, but I don’t believe all whale species were used as sources of oil.

    This is just another stupid KMW post.

  44. KMW,

    Okay, the US fleet dropped to thirty-some ships. What about the rest of the world?

    Shitty reporting, as usual.

  45. I got the following quote (in full, I’m sure confident he won’t mind) from this link. Quote is from April 17, 1870:

    As the US Population reaches toward the astronomical total of 40 million persons, we are reaching the limits of the number of people this earth can support. If one were to extrapolate current population growth rates, this country in a hundred years could have over 250 million people in it! Now of course, that figure is impossible – the farmland of this country couldn’t possibly support even half this number. But it is interesting to consider the environmental consequences.

    Take the issue of transportation. Currently there are over 11 million horses in this country, the feeding and care of which constitute a significant part of our economy. A population of 250 million would imply the need for nearly 70 million horses in this country, and this is even before one considers the fact that “horse intensity”, or the average number of horses per family, has been increasing steadily over the last several decades. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to assume that so many people might need 100 million horses to fulfill all their transportation needs. There is just no way this admittedly bountiful nation could support 100 million horses. The disposal of their manure alone would create an environmental problem of unprecedented magnitude.

    Or, take the case of illuminant. As the population grows, the demand for illuminant should grow at least as quickly. However, whale catches and therefore whale oil supply has leveled off of late, such that many are talking about the “peak whale” phenomena, which refers to the theory that whale oil production may have already passed its peak. 250 million people would use up the entire supply of the world’s whales four or five times over, leaving none for poorer nations of the world.

  46. Killing these intelligent animals just to eat ’em? No, thanks!


  47. There is a fascinating museum of whaling right near Kannapali Beach on Maui. If you ever get the opportunity to do so, it is worth a couple of hours.

  48. I thhink the point is that there is a world wide moritorium on hunting whales.

    Japan and Norway are the big commercial hunters of whales, who totally ignore this moritorium.

    Japan kills whales in a whale sanctuary, Norway kills in a whale breeding ground.

    Killing and trading in endangered species is against CITIES, the IWC moritorium and is an act of gross inhumanity.

    These whales do don’t die quickly, they are harpooned by explosive harpoons, they can then take hours, literarally hours in agony to die, while sailors take pot shots at them with shot guns; the equivilent to someone trying to kill you with pins.

    The point is that we as humans are yet again responsible for TAKING and never GIVING.

    The seas are polluted, de fished, and dying at our hands. The Whales are dying because of our use of the sea and because we choose to go out and kill them for no reason.

    No one is going to die of starvation because they do eat whale meat.

  49. $1.77 a gallon in the mid-1800s? Wow.. I never had any idea whale oil was that expensive.


  50. Given the fact that whales are giant repositories for the chemical stew that they spend their lives swimming around in, I wouldn’t eat one.

    I was tested and it turns out I am cadmium, aluminum, chromium, lead, silver, mercury and titanium intolerant.

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