By Erica Cirino
It’s been nearly 9 years since The Cove brought the story of dolphin massacres in Taiji, Japan, and the issue of captive cetaceans before the eyes of millions of people around the world. The film shows viewers the images of fishers corralling dozens of thrashing and squealing dolphins into nets set up in Japan’s sheltered Taiji Cove with their boats. Once the dolphins are trapped in the nets, the fishers stab most of the dolphins with long gaffs, turning the water red with dolphin blood. A few of the youngest, healthiest dolphins are spared—instead of being killed, the fishers tie them up in nets and bring them to shore, to be sold into captivity at marine parks across Asia. When the film was released, scientists said up to 22,000 small cetaceans—small whales, porpoises and dolphins—were killed in these Japanese hunting expeditions annually.
While The Cove has inspired many to oppose Japan’s treatment of cetaceans, the Taiji hunts have persisted—with Japan defending the hunts as a “cultural tradition.” However, significant progress has been made worldwide in challenging humans’ perceptions around cetacean captivity and cruelty. Across the world, some countries and states have banned keeping cetaceans in captivity, obtaining cetaceans from the wild for captivity and/or captive cetacean performances; activities marine mammal experts say are cruel. Responding to pressure from scientists, activists and the public, in 2016 SeaWorld announced it would no longer breed killer whales.
The most recent country to enact its own legislation affecting captive cetaceans is South Korea, which had been importing an estimated 70 percent of its captive dolphins from Taiji, according to Hotpinkdolphins, an organization that promotes cetacean rights in the country. Thanks to the work of Hotpinkdolphins and several other South Korean nonprofits, last month, South Korea’s Ministry of Environment prohibited the importation of Taiji dolphins to the country, and also the importation of threatened dolphin populations—such as around Jeju Island. While South Korea’s ban will help a small number of dolphins, and does not go so far as to prohibit dolphin captivity, it’s an event that animal rights activists are celebrating as a win that brings the Taiji hunts back into the spotlight for the world to discuss and react to.
The effort to ban Taiji dolphins from being imported into South Korea began with Hotpinkdolphins’ efforts to free captive Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins captured off South Korea’s Jeju Island in 2011. Over the years, the organization has sent 7 native dolphins back into South Korean waters. But in 2012 the organization realized most of the country’s captive dolphins were from Taiji, and that because they were from Japan—where people support hunting dolphins—it would need to prevent Taiji’s dolphins from being exported to South Korea in the first place.
“Dolphin shows in South Korea have many problems like elsewhere,” said Joyakgol, co-founder of Hotpinkdolphins. “It’s imperative to stop the trade from the beginning. This is our way of saving Taiji dolphins.”
Hotpinkdolphins pushed a dolphin-park boycott campaign during many street demonstrations and on social media, as well as in government meetings, press conferences, statements, symposiums and more. Joyakgol said that played a huge role in the lead-up to the new ban, but that it was its successful return of captive wild-caught dolphins into nature that made the biggest splash.
“Most importantly, sending seven captive dolphins back to the wild was the greatest achievement, and it convinced many Korea people including government officials that dolphins do not belong to the tank,” said Joyakgol.
Forty-four Taiji dolphins were imported to South Korea from 2010 to 2017. Since January 2018, that number has been zero, and if the ban holds, will remain that way indefinitely.
Hotpinkdolphins and other nonprofits such as Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project, Korean Animal Welfare Association, Korean Federation for Environmental Movement of Ulsan, and Sea Shepherd are still working to stop Taiji dolphins from being imported into captivity in Asia and around the world. But besides preventing more cetaceans from becoming captive—especially those caught in the controversial Taiji hunts—there’s also now a growing movement to give better lives to cetaceans who are currently captive by moving them to natural but protected seaside pens. This is an effort being led by Safina Center Creative Affiliate Lori Marino, founder and president of the Whale Sanctuary Project, who applauds Hotpinkdolphins and others involved in the enactment of South Korea’s new ban.
“It’s time to bring an end to the entire enterprise of keeping dolphins and whales confined to concrete tanks and performing for their keep,” said Marino. “And I hope the South Korean government ensures that any captive dolphins who are imported from other captive facilities were not originally taken in the Taiji drives. The chain of exploitation and marketing of dolphins and whales for entertainment has to be broken once and for all.”