On Wednesday May 20th, the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA) announced that its members would henceforth be prohibited from purchasing animals captured during the annual dolphin hunt in Taiji. The hunt, which gained international notoriety after the release of the 2009 documentary The Cove, has seen the slaughter of approximately 5,000 dolphins in the last five years. In addition to those dolphins killed —ostensibly for food and to preserve a centuries-old tradition of dolphin hunting in Taiji — 750 dolphins were sold into captivity in aquariums both in Japan and around the world. These dolphins carry an approximate value of around $100,000 each, and as such, conservation organization Sea Shepherd has claimed that “the captive trade represents the true money behind the slaughter,” and is therefore the biggest incentive for the drive’s continued existence.
It is thought that around 40 percent of the Taiji dolphins sold into captivity end up in Japanese zoos and aquariums. There are approximately 250 dolphins currently kept in JAZA-affiliated aquariums, of which around half are believed to have come from Taiji. According to JAZA secretary general Naonori Okada, the association has, up until now, collectively purchased an average of 20 Taiji dolphins each year. Figures like these therefore prove the significance of the ban, which JAZA chairman Kazutoshi Arai says will prohibit JAZA members “to acquire wild dolphins caught by drive fishing in Taiji, and to take part in their export and sale.”
This sudden change of heart does not stem from sympathy for the Taiji dolphins, however. “We don’t think taking the dolphins from the wild is cruel,” said Arai. “We aren’t criticizing the hunt and we don’t expect to change our stance.” Instead, the ban has been put in place to appease the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), an international organization that suspended Japan’s membership in April as a result of JAZA’s refusal to withdraw its support from the Taiji dolphin drives.
WAZA comprises more than 20 association members, including JAZA and the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria), as well as 300 individual members, including the London Zoo, the Melbourne Zoo and the Zoological Society of San Diego. WAZA’s decision to suspend Japan’s membership had serious ramifications for Japanese zoos and aquariums, including preventing them from trading animals with other WAZA organizations. The WAZA council voted unanimously to suspend Japan’s membership, citing JAZA’s violation of the WAZA code of ethics and animal welfare. In an effort to achieve reinstatement, JAZA passed the ban, which was approved after members voted 142 to 43 in its favor, which is being hailed as a “huge victory for the dolphins” by Ric O’Barry, the driving force behind The Cove. In the wake of the ban, Arai commented that JAZA aquariums should now look towards captive breeding as an alternative to purchasing wild-caught dolphins.
This recent ban marks a significant step forward for dolphin conservation in Japan, but the reality of what ensues has yet to be seen. It is unclear whether JAZA’s ban extends to those dolphins caught outside Taiji, which is the most well known, but far from the only, of Japan’s annual drives. It is thought that around 20,000 dolphins are killed annually in similar drives all over the country, all of which may potentially contribute to the aquarium trade.
Additionally, 17 Japanese aquariums that currently house dolphins are not members of JAZA, and can therefore continue sourcing their dolphins from Taiji without suffering any consequences, and at least five of 34 aquariums belonging to JAZA are threatening to leave the organization immediately, with another two threatening to quit in the future, over the ban. Finally, the majority of the Taiji dolphins sold into captivity are purchased by international aquariums, which fall outside of JAZA’s jurisdiction.
Despite these limitations, the ban has nevertheless given conservation organizations hope that Japan’s dolphin drives may soon end. Courtney Vail from Whale and Dolphin Conservation hailed JAZA’s recent decision as “a big step, and one that will hopefully contribute to an end to these hunts.”