The 2009 documentary “The Cove,” by Louie Psihoyos, pulled back the curtain on Japan’s Taiji dolphin hunt, which gave vivid images and details of the gruesome annual killing of dolphins at an isolated inlet in a small town in Wakayama Prefecture. The swell of outrage against this hunt, which kills about 1,000 dolphins and small whales each year, has not subsided since. “The Cove” won an Academy Award, but that hasn’t compelled Japanese authorities to budge. Not yet, anyway.
Now, shockingly, Japanese authorities have just given approval for dolphin hunters to take two new species this coming season, starting in September. Some weeks ago, there was a public consultation on the idea of adding two little-known species, the rough-toothed dolphin and melon-headed whale (actually another species of dolphin) to the list of small whales for which Japan issues annual hunting quotas in its national waters. This lengthy list includes 10 species, including bottlenose dolphins and pilot whales. The request to take more species has undoubtedly come from the fisheries community and may reflect problems in finding some of the species that have been hunted for many years, either for consumption or captured live for sale to zoos and aquariums.
The problem is not local to Taiji, as there are a number of other whale and dolphin hunts conducted in Japanese waters. Dolphins and small whales are taken in a number of ways in these hunts, including by hand-harpooning and by ‘drive hunts’ (like that of Taiji), in which the animals are driven ashore by noisy boats and then captured and killed near to shore. In Taiji, some dolphins are also taken for sale into the captivity industry; the high price that these animals fetch underpins this cruel hunt (U.S. $10,000 or more per dolphin straight from the drive hunt, but upwards of $150,000 once tamed and trained for a time in facilities like the Taiji Whale Museum). Apart from the tremendous stress caused to the animals as they are driven ashore, they are confined and slaughtered in front of each other. Each dolphin is restrained, and a metal spike is driven into the animal’s head, behind the blowhole, to sever the spinal cord.
Japanese press reports suggest that the Taiji hunters are pleased by the inclusion of two additional species on the kill list, and the Taiji Whale Museum (a for-profit aquarium) has signaled its eagerness to acquire new species to put on display.
The rough-toothed dolphin (its name comes from the unusual patterning on its teeth), a large, mainly grey dolphin usually found at sea in warmer waters, was previously hunted in Japan until 1981. The melon-headed whale (a dolphin species that can grow to some 2.75 meters long) is also usually found in warmer, deeper waters. Both species are highly social and it is common to see them in mixed schools with other species, including bottlenose dolphins.
According to official statistics released by the Japanese government, Taiji hunters killed more than 11,000 dolphins and whales between 2005 and 2014, and captured nearly 1,000 animals live for the aquarium industry during this same period.
The Taiji hunt typically runs from September until March of each year.
The U.S. government has already banned imports of live dolphins captured during these hunts, and the practice has been condemned by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums and, importantly, the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA). The Taiji Whale Museum is among a handful of aquariums in Japan to leave JAZA, apparently so it can continue to purchase live dolphins from the drive hunts. Sadly, the hunting continues, spurred on by the profits made from sales to the captivity industry. This latest news all but assures that the Japanese fishing industry is poised to extend its cruelty to two new species.
Tokyo will host the Summer Olympics in 2020 and Japan ought to be seeking to avoid needless controversy. It can start by reversing the decision to allow new species to be added to the list of those being persecuted. That would also be a good start toward a phase-out of the drive hunts altogether. They represent a profligate cruelty that shames Japan and does that nation no credit.