Taiji dolphin slaughter turns cove into bloodbath

By Tracy Brighten

Despite a ban on Japanese aquarium and zoo association members sourcing live dolphins from Taiji, local fishermen say demand is unaffected 

Each year, from September to March, hundreds of dolphins are caught in one small cove along Japan’s Pacific coast and either traded as a live commodity, or slaughtered and sold as meat.

According to Earth Island Institute’s Mark Palmer, Associate Director of the International Marine Mammal Project, the capture of live dolphins at Taiji Cove subsidises the declining trade in dolphin meat.

The meat trade would no longer be viable without the substantial profits in selling trained dolphins, says Earth Island Institute. Hunters can get US$500-600 for the sale of dolphin meat, compared to up to US$150,000 that aquariums, marine parks, and hotel resorts will pay for a live, trained bottlenose dolphin.

The hunt is heart-wrenching to watch for anyone not cashing in on the carnage. Pods of dolphins are driven into the bay, and the prettiest individuals are hand-picked to be trained and sold off to captive facilities in Japan and worldwide. Rejects are dragged into the picturesque cove to be brutally slaughtered with hand-held harpoons. Each year since 2010, Sea Shepherd’s Cove Guardians have been documenting the hunt in Taiji to the rest of the world.

Demand for dolphin meat is down

In Japan, the government strongly influences the media, so the Taiji dolphin drive hunt, as well as the toxicity of dolphin and whale meat, is not well known. Campaign groups, such as Earth Island Institute, are working alongside Japanese activists to educate people about the dangers of eating dolphin meat contaminated with mercury, and this has helped to reduce demand.

Fishing industry propaganda promotes Japanese “food culture” even though many Japanese people no longer eat dolphin meat. According to Save Japan Dolphin, the fishing industry also holds the misguided view that dolphins deplete fish stocks. Where other nations use fishing quota management systems to manage fish stocks, Japan kills dolphins.

Demand for live dolphins remains strong

There has at least been a reduction in Taiji dolphin deaths over recent years with the decreased demand for meat, but the demand for live dolphins remains strong. In 2014, Taiji brokers supplied facilities in Japan (including the Taiji Whale Museum and the Taiji Dolphin Resort Hotel), China (including Shishi SeaWorld and Beijing Aquarium), Russia, Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East, according to Ceta-Base data.

In response to pressure from the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), members of the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA) have voted overwhelmingly to stop sourcing live dolphins from Taiji.

Conservation groups are hopeful that JAZA’s decision to abide by international animal welfare standards signals an end to the Taiji drive hunt that depends on live-capture profits.

However, local fishermen report that 150 orders for live dolphins have been received so far, on par with last year, although JAZA members have not placed orders, the Taiji Whale Museum excepted.

Bottlenose dolphins are the most popular in zoos and aquariums. However, as bottlenose catch numbers have fallen, Pantropical spotted, Pacific white-sided, Rosso’s and striped dolphins are also captured.

Taiji dolphin hunt exposed

The Taiji secret was first exposed to a global audience in 2009 with the award-winning documentary The Cove. Since then, Earth Island Institute’s Save Japan Dolphins campaign has been joined by other campaigns, including Sea Shepherd conservationists on the ground in Taiji, to educate people and pressure Japanese policy makers to ban the Taiji hunt that hides a live dolphin trade behind the cover of a meat trade.

The cruelty in keeping cetaceans in captive facilities was exposed in the documentary Blackfish (2013). However, despite campaigns to end cetacean captivity in zoos and aquariums, the industry has been slow to respond while profit, rather than ethics, drives decision making.

By visiting these attractions, consumers support the captivity of intelligent mammals, which form close family bonds, in cramped conditions that bear no resemblance to their wild habitat. Consumers can drive change by not supporting these facilities. If global demand for live dolphins decreases, Taiji hunters’ claims of tradition and “food culture” will be exposed because the hunt will not be profitable.

Taiji dolphin hunt tradition

Taiji fishermen remain defiant they will continue the tradition and pass it on to future generations, according to The Japan Times. But Elsa Nature Conservancy of Japan discredits the tradition argument – research of Taiji’s written history shows that annual hunts only started in 1969. Even commercial whaling in Japan only started at the turn of the 20th century.  

Hunt defenders point out that bottlenose dolphins are not endangered, but conservationist are worried that reduced catch numbers reflects population decline caused by the hunt. The tradition will be difficult to pass on with no dolphins to hunt.

The government is clear in its support. The Guardian quotes Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, who said the hunts are “a sustainable fishing [method] under appropriate control by the government with scientific foundations, and carried out carefully so that dolphins are not hurt.”

The chief cabinet secretary should ask why bottlenose dolphin catch numbers are falling if the hunt is sustainable, and why scientific and veterinary evidence conflicts with his view that dolphins are not hurt.

Victims of anti-Japanese bias

Locals consider themselves victims of anti-Japanese bias. The governor of Wakayama prefecture, Yoshinobu Nisaka, said the WAZA decision was “bullying from all over the world,” reports The Japan Times.

Similarly, Japanese film director Keiko Yagi has recently made a documentary to counter what she sees as “Japan bashing” in The Cove. She interviews Sea Shepherd activists, Ric O’Barry, former dolphin trainer turned conservationist involved in both Flipper and The Cove, and Cove director Louie Psihoyos, reports The Japan Times.

Yagi’s focus, however, is on the whaling tradition as locals reminisce about the whaling days, ignoring today’s trade of supplying live dolphins at vast profit to aquariums and marine parks worldwide.

She also argues on account of “food culture”, saying that whale meat provided food after Japan’s defeat in World War II.

“Unless we can respect each other’s food culture, war will be a never-ending story,” Yagi told reporters.

Yagi seems to confuse the necessity brought about by food scarcity in wartime with the greed that now drives the live-capture trade.

The bias isn’t against culture or nationality, it’s against acts of animal cruelty and species reduction. Conservationists and animal welfare groups are also opposed to the Faroe Island pilot whale massacre, to China’s demand for totoaba fish that endangers the Mexican vaquita porpoise, and to New Zealand fisheries bycatch of Maui and Hector’s dolphins.

The governor of Wakayama prefecture has the power to stop the Taiji hunt. If those involved can understand the physical and emotional complexity of the dolphins they kill, and consider the tourism alternatives to this trade which can benefit many more local people, they may be persuaded to change.

It’s not about “Japan bashing”, it’s about educating people for a more humane world.

Australia for Dolphins has a petition to ask the Japanese authorities to end the Taiji drive hunt, which you might like to sign. You may also like to contact the Japanese Embassy in your own country.