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Dolphin roundup at Japan’s Taiji Cove puts spotlight on changing economics of hunts

By Tim Zimmermann Over the weekend, Japanese fishermen from the village of Taiji drove an estimated 200-plus bottlenose dolphins into a local bay made notorious by the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary The Cove. Over the course of the weekend, some 51 were selected for sale and display in marine parks, according to the Sea Shepherd Conservation...

By Tim Zimmermann

Over the weekend, Japanese fishermen from the village of Taiji drove an estimated 200-plus bottlenose dolphins into a local bay made notorious by the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary The Cove. Over the course of the weekend, some 51 were selected for sale and display in marine parks, according to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which monitors the Taiji hunt.

Many or most of the others are now likely to be slaughtered, the group says.

The capture and imminent slaughter of such an unusually large group of dolphins garnered global media attention, along with Twitter condemnation from celebrities like Kirstie Alley, Bryan Adams and Alyssa Milano, along with an open letter from Yoko Ono.

Most notably, newly installed U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy sounded a note of alarm,  tweeting: “Deeply concerned by inhumaneness of drive hunt dolphin killing. USG opposes drive hunt fisheries.”

So far, the Japanese fishing industry appears unmoved.

Attempts by to get comment from officials for the Wakayama prefecture, where the town of Taiji is located, went unanswered. But one Japanese fishing industry official told Agence France Presse: “We’ve got our lives. We can’t simply nod (to protests) and end centuries of our tradition… If you want to talk about cruelty, you couldn’t eat cows, pigs or any other living creatures.”

Indeed, the Taiji dolphin drive hunt, which takes place annually from September through April, has persisted despite increased global scrutiny and attention. Since 2000, according to the group Whale and Dolphin Conservation, more than 18,000 dolphins from seven different species have been either killed or taken into captivity during the Taiji hunt.

Traditionally, the Japanese drive hunts were mainly as a way of procuring meat. Dolphin meat has long been considered a local Taiji delicacy, and meat from the Taiji dolphin hunt has been sold across Japan. Hunting whales and dolphins was also a mainstay of the Taiji economy.

“We are a whaling community, and we don’t want to lose that,” Katsutoshi Mihara, chairman of Taiji’s town council, told the New York Times in 2008. “Here, all boys grew up dreaming of hunting whales.” The Wakayama Prefecture also vigorously defended the Taiji dolphin hunts in response to The Cove, saying in part:

“The Taiji dolphin fishery has been a target of repeated psychological harassment and interference by aggressive foreign animal protection organizations. Taiji dolphin fishermen are just conducting a legal fishing activity in their traditional way in full accordance with regulations and rules under the supervision of both the national and the prefectural governments. Therefore, we believe there are no reasons to criticize the Taiji dolphin fishery.”

In recent years, however, concern over mercury levels in dolphin meat has raised questions in Japan about the use of dolphin meat as a food source, especially in school lunches. And dolphin meat is no longer a primary source of food, reducing the practical value of the drive hunt as a food source.

At the same time, the sale of dolphins captured in the Taiji drive hunt for marine park display (via brokers such as the Taiji Whale Museum) appears to be a steadily growing profit source for the hunts. From 2000-2005, an average of 56 live dolphins annually were sold for captive display. From 2006-2012, the annual average has more than doubled to 137, with a total of 247 sold for captive display in 2012-2013, according to marine mammal advocacy groups.

So far this season, a total of 137 dolphins have been selected for marine park display, including the 40 bottlenose selected for sale over the weekend. According to Sea Shepherd, one of the first dolphins removed from the Taiji cove in the weekend roundup was a rare albino calf, which could be especially valuable in drawing crowds to a marine park.

Whale And Dolphin Conservation has documented the growing role of the sale of dolphins to marine parks in Japan in driving hunts . According to Ric O’Barry, who was featured in The Cove and now works to try and bring an end to the Taiji hunt through The Dolphin Project, no one has documented the price that a live dolphin fetches for the Taiji fishermen.

But Barry says there is documentation showing the Taiji Whale Museum, which trains and brokers many dolphins from the Taiji hunt, has in the past sold Taiji dolphins abroad for as much as $150,000 each.

The 50-plus Japanese aquariums that keep some 600 dolphins and take many of the Taiji dolphins, as well as many aquariums abroad, do not pay such exorbitant prices. (According to Courtney Vail of Whale And Dolphin Conservation, the range is more like $40,000 to $80,000). But with growing demand for dolphins from China–which already has 35 aquariums displaying dolphins–it’s clear that the sale of live dolphins from the Taiji drive hunt has become a very lucrative business.

The steady demand for Taiji dolphins from Japanese marine parks has prompted three Japanese conservation groups–Elsa Nature Conservancy, Help Animals, and Put an End to Animal Cruelty and Exploitation (PEACE)–to renew a call for the World Association Of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) to ensure that members of the Japan Association Of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA) stop acquiring wild dolphins from the drive hunts.

In the past, WAZA–which sets standards for member marine parks around the world–has declared that “the catching of dolphins by the use of a method known as “drive fishing” is considered an example of such a non-acceptable capture method.” But WAZA has also been reluctant to pressure Japanese marine parks over the purchase of dolphins from Japanese drive hunts, including Taiji, due to concerns over intruding on a cultural practice.

In their letter to WAZA–citing a history of Taiji published by the town in 1979–the three conservation groups challenge that concern, along with the idea that the Taiji hunt is a longstanding historical and cultural practice: “[T]he first recorded dolphin drive was in 1933, with subsequent hunts occurring in 1936 and 1944. It was not until 1969 that dolphin drives have been conducted on a large scale. The history of the dolphin drives spans not so-called 400 years, but a mere 45.”

It is not clear whether an end to sales of live dolphins to marine parks would eventually bring an end the Taiji drive hunt. But it would dramatically reduce profits from marine mammal hunts.  Ric O’Barry has no doubt about what that would mean for the Taiji hunt.

“The sale of dolphins is what keeps it going. That is the economic underpinning of the slaughter,” he says. “I don’t think selling dolphin meat would be profitable anymore. It’s all about money, lots of money.”

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Dan Gilgoff
Dan Gilgoff is the director of National Geographic News.