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Taiji Dolphin Slaughter: Culture or Cruelty?

In the past week, images of the blood-stained waters of Japan’s Taiji cove have made their way into international media, providing sickening proof of the massacre recently committed there.

Many of us were already familiar with the annual Taiji dolphin slaughter, which has been sparking global outrage since its 2009 exposure in the award-winning documentary “The Cove.” The documentary shed light on the Japanese dolphin fishing industry as a whole, using the Taiji dolphin slaughter as a focal point to raise awareness about the 23,000 dolphins caught and killed in similar areas each year. Last week’s events represented the last phase of a process that occurs throughout the dolphin fishing season, which begins on September 1st each year and lasts until early March. 


The Taiji Dolphin Slaughter: How It’s Done

This process targets pods of wild dolphins migrating along the Japanese coastline; once spotted, fishermen herd them inshore and trap them in small coves and bays. The animals are often kept without food or adequate space for several days, while representatives of aquariums from all over the world come to select dolphins for purchase. The chosen are sold off, after which the rest are either released or more often, killed for their meat. Methods used during the Taiji dolphin slaughter have changed over the years; fishermen used to cut the animals’ throats but now aim to kill them by driving a metal peg into their spinal cord. Dolphins have long since been proved to be intelligent creatures with strong familial ties, and as they are targeted individually, family members must watch their relatives die while struggling to escape a literal sea of blood.

What Happens to the Animals?

Of the dolphins corralled in Taiji last week, 52 were sold to aquariums, and over 40 were butchered, ostensibly for human consumption. According to Sea Shepherd spokeswoman and Cove guardian Melissa Sehgal, 1,200 dolphins have been trapped in Taiji alone since the season began last September; of those, more than half have been killed and 149 have been sold into captivity. The Wakayama Prefectural Government, under whose jurisdiction Taiji falls, has set a catch quota for this season of 2,026 porpoises and dolphins of varying species, proving that despite public outcry and worldwide attention from high-ranking politicians, conservation groups and celebrities, the killing continues.

Culture or Cruelty?

We must ask why the annual Taiji dolphin slaughter continues, even in the face of such opposition. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga sees the dolphins as nothing more than a “very important water resource” — certainly, the industry is lucrative. The primary purpose of the killings is meant to satisfy the Japanese demand for dolphin meat, which is considered a delicacy and is often served in restaurants and sold in shops throughout the country’s coastal regions. Dolphin meat has a retail price of around $10 to $15 per pound,  meaning that each individual killed generates approximately $600 when sold for consumption. The most commonly heard argument in defense of the annual fishing season is that it is necessary to uphold local fishing and dietary traditions, but this claim is somewhat undermined by the real source of the industry’s income.

While a dead dolphin may be worth $600 for its meat, this sum pales in comparison to the value of a dolphin sold into captivity. These live dolphins, once trained, are worth over $150,000 each, equaling approximately $3 million for the fishermen in exchange for the 52 untrained dolphins sold last week. The incentive to continue the yearly dolphin drive seems to have far more to do with money than with maintaining local traditions. Using the meat trade as a veil for the capture of dolphins for sale into show business is highlighted by the figures of recent years; according to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, the 2012-2013 season saw a 10-year low in terms of dolphin deaths , but an unprecedented number of animals selected for the aquarium industry.

Perhaps most despicably, last year the Wakayama Prefecture announced their intention to open a marine mammal park in Taiji. At the proposed park, guests would be able to experience captive whales and dolphins in the water, before eating both in the park’s restaurant. The question of the Japanese government’s commitment to the practices of past eras versus their commitment to cashing in on the popularity of dolphin displays in this era is therefore a valid one. However, the authorities continue to stick doggedly to their justifications, with Taiji mayor Kazutaka Sangen insisting that the slaughter is a matter of heritage and that the fishermen within his community are simply exercising their right to fulfill a tradition that he has personally vowed to protect.

In a recent statement, the Wakayama Prefecture reacted to foreign pressure to stop the killings, saying “no one has a right to decide which dietary cultures are right or barbaric.” There is some truth to this statement: after all, what gives Western society the right to condemn the Taiji fishermen or the Japanese consumers for eating dolphin when animals of all species are killed for food everywhere in the world? Certainly, the slaughterhouses and abattoirs in the U.S and Europe are far from reproach; national delicacies like foie gras and veal involve incredible cruelty. The majority of those opposed to Japan’s dolphin hunt are not vegetarian; even fewer are vegan. How is it possible then for us to judge the Japanese penchant for dolphin meat when most of our own diets involve animal death?

Firstly, there’s the previously mentioned argument that the slaughter in coves like Taiji has very little to do with the Japanese food industry, and a whole lot to do with the lucrative dolphinarium business. Then there’s the fact that these deaths are so public. For me, the most horrific image of this year’s season was that of a fisherman purposefully running his outboard engine over a group of dolphins unable to escape from its propeller blades, which captured the vindictive, pointless and heartbreaking brutality that has come to define this annual event.

According to a paper submitted by Japanese researchers, the decision to shift from slitting the dolphins’ throats to using a lance and peg to sever their spinal cord was made in an effort to make their deaths more humane. The same paper claims that the newer killing method means the dolphins die in as few as five seconds, and yet  footage from two seasons ago showed individuals struggling for five minutes or more between being stabbed and finally dying. The dolphins first suffer paraplegia due to the severance of the spinal cord, and then die slowly from blood loss and acute trauma. An opposing study from the University of Bristol veterinary school took into account the whole process of the killings — from capture at sea, to separation of family members, to extended confinement in the cove, to the slaughter itself — and came to the conclusion that under no circumstances could they be considered humane. One of the paper’s authors, Andrew Butterworth, surmised that the method for killing the Taiji dolphins “does not conform to any recognized mechanism for bringing about death in accepted humane slaughter,” and “would not be tolerated or permitted in any regulated slaughterhouse process in the developed world.”

The dolphin fisheries are not only harmful to the dolphins themselves, but also to the small percentage of the Japanese population that consumes their meat. Tests on samples of dolphin meat have shown it to be dangerously high in mercury, with between 10 to 100 parts per million. The Japanese government’s recommended mercury intake is just 0.4 parts per million, meaning that by their own admission, dolphin meat is unsafe for human consumption. The figures for the 2012-2013 season suggest that the Japanese consumers are becoming aware of these health risks. In 2004, 1,600 dolphins were killed, but last year’s death toll was reduced to 900. It would seem that the market for contaminated meat is on the decline, thanks to increased awareness of its dangers.

It is important when discussing any conservation issue to remain as unbiased as possible; it is easy to lose sight of the facts in the tide of one’s emotional reaction. It is easy to sound racist and ill informed, to be superior and judgmental without justification, and to condemn a whole country when in fact, only a very few are responsible for the events we saw in our newspapers and on our television screens. We must remember that the dolphin species targeted by the industry in Japan are not endangered — the bottlenose dolphin is classified as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. And no species of dolphin or porpoise is afforded any protection under the terms of the International Whaling Commission, meaning that hunting them is legal. That is not to say that killing them is acceptable or right, but in a world where endangered and protected animals are slaughtered every day, the Taiji dolphin trade is one of the few that is not in contravention of the law.

Neither is it correct to lay the atrocities committed against the world’s dolphins squarely on the shoulders of the Japanese. Taiji may be a focal point for the attention of sympathizers and conservation groups worldwide, but similar dolphin massacres happen each year in Denmark’s Faroe Islands and in the South Pacific’s Solomon Islands. The Faroese have been killing thousands of pilot whales, Atlantic white-sided dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, Risso’s dolphins and even orcas on their shores annually since 1584. As recently as the 1960s and 70s, orca drives took place in Puget Sound and British Columbia in North America to provide aquariums with their star attractions.

Much of the blame must go to the aquariums — and those who attend them — that support and perpetuate massacres like this one by purchasing dolphins for captivity. Without that demand, the financial impetus behind the dolphin fisheries would drastically decline, and the practice would swiftly become unsustainable. There have been repeated studies proving that it is inhumane to keep cetaceans in captivity, and yet more are commissioned and purchased from the wild each year. The Japanese may catch the Taiji dolphins, but one of the chief brokers for selling them to establishments across the world is an American, amusement park consultant Ted Hammond. The dolphinarium business represents an $8.4 million industry in the United States alone.

Sometimes, the situation in Taiji and in other dolphin fisheries around the world seems hopeless. Peaceful and not-so-peaceful protests, attempts to change legislation, the attention of the international media and exposés in popular culture — none have convinced either the fishermen or their government to stop the killing. The Cove creator and dolphin activist Ric O’Barry has said that the change must come from within, that in the case of Taiji, the Japanese people are “the only ones who can stop the slaughter.” Outside pressure, particularly from the West, is more likely to hinder efforts to end the dolphin killings than to help them. In a country where the culture is very much geared toward tradition and national pride, it is hard for sympathetic Japanese to stand up for the dolphins, and yet protest groups have sprung up across Japan in reaction to the atrocities. And these events don’t occur in a vacuum — the capture of dolphins is lucrative because people continue to attend parks where they’re featured. By choosing not to participate in captive dolphin experiences or go to amusement parks that feature dolphins, we take a stand with our dollars. If there is no demand, there is no supply.

Perhaps this slow awakening of the Japanese to the horrors taking place on their coastlines is due to increased awareness of the dangers of consuming cetacean meat, perhaps it is an increased empathy for the dolphins. Small villages like Taiji are far removed from metropolises like Tokyo, and the actions of a handful of fishermen do not represent the opinions of a whole nation. In stark contrast, the residents of the Japanese island of Toshima (which is inhabited predominantly by fishermen) gave citizenship to local dolphins in 2012, thereby offering them full protection while in their waters. Actions like this offer hope that one day the Taiji dolphin slaughter will stop. In the meantime, increased awareness and education are the most powerful weapons in the fight to win justice for the dolphins. If enough Japanese people come to care about the issue, the question of whether the waters around Taiji will remain blue becomes a matter of when, rather than if.

Dolphin slaughter footage