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Exposing a senseless practice

The slaughter of dolphins at Taiji

Created date

December 20th, 2011

The drive hunts begin in September and continue through March. Fleets of boats patrol the waters near the small town of Taiji, Japan, in search of herds or pods of dolphins. These expeditions occur just outside a cove nestled along the Japanese coastline, where fishermen work with breathtaking and gruesome efficiency. As the dolphins approach, the mariners deploy their boats in a semicircle and drop long, metal poles into the water, banging them with mallets to create a piercing wall of sound that drives the animals into the cove. Next, the fishermen close off the entrance with nets, trapping the dolphins in the shallow water for a quick, methodical selection process. Hunters pluck the younger, more tractable females from the water, selling them to any one of Japan s 50 dolphinariums, where they ll spend the rest of their lives jumping through hoops and waving their flippers to spectators; the others, their spinal cords severed, their blowholes plugged, slowly suffocated and butchered for meat.

Centuries-old practice

Officials in the Japanese fishing industry claim that drive hunts are part of an old custom that goes back hundreds of years. To animal rights activist Ric O Barry, however, it s hardly mere tradition. The former dolphin trainer, best known for his work on the 1960s television seriesFlipper, got his first taste of this so-called custom during a trip to Taiji in 2003. What O Barry witnessed forever changed him. From atop the heights surrounding the cove, he heard the dolphins shriek in terror, he watched the blue seawater turn a bloody crimson, and he saw no one trying to stop it. O Barry returned to the Taiji cove every year thereafter, not as a passive observer but as an impassioned advocate determined to expose this practice for the entire world to see. I was pulling my hair out over what I saw on my first visit, says O Barry, who currently serves as the director of the nonprofit Save Japan Dolphins Coalition campaign. Finally, I decided to make a DVD for the media calledWelcome to Taiji, and it wasn t long before I had CNN and the BBC sending camera crews out to the cove to capture their own video. In the time since, O Barry has garnered the attention of millions around the globe, his argument for stopping the drive hunts as compelling as his footage is grisly. Japan s dolphinariums are part of the problem because they re the economic underpinning of the drive hunts, he asserts. The Taiji fishermen make money in two ways: they sell the best dolphins into captivity and slaughter the rest for meat. Outlawing the capture and sale of these animals will make the drive hunts less profitable. By O Barry s estimate, a single dolphin can bring $150,000 when sold into captivity compared to only $500 when butchered. Aside from the obvious cruelty behind the drive hunts, fishermen sell over 1,000 slaughtered dolphins for food every season, the poisonous meat heavily contaminated with mercury. A 2011 study by the Elsa Nature Conservancy in Japan found that dolphin meat sold in local grocery stores contained up to 48 times the maximum safe level of mercury and 19 times the allowable limit of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), man-made chemicals found in industrial products like electrical wiring. Researchers have linked the toxins to liver, nervous, immune, and circulatory system damage, as well as cancer. For film director Louie Psihoyos, who chronicled O Barry s work in the Oscar-winning documentaryThe Cove (2009), the lack of awareness among the Japanese people is as shocking as the health risks. While shooting The Cove, we learned that Japanese officials dump about 5,000 tons of toxic dolphin meat on the public, Psihoyos recalls. A lot of it s fed to unsuspecting school children whose parents think they re eating healthy meat because the website for the Ministry of Health says that it s okay to eat dolphin, even for pregnant women.

Education pays off

Both O Barry and Psihoyos stress that education is the key to ending the drive hunts, and, judging by the overwhelming success of their film, they ve had no trouble finding a receptive audience. In addition to the 2009 Oscar for Best Documentary,The Covehas won more film festival awards than any other nonfiction feature in history. About a year and a half ago, the mayor of Taiji announced that the sale of whale and dolphin meat had fallen by 30%, and that was right around the time thatThe Covecame out, notes Psihoyos. When a film shows the whole world how your product is poisoning the public, it really diminishes the demand. With that heightened awareness, we ve probably saved thousands of dolphins. Nonetheless, O Barry says that the battle isn t over, especially for those dolphins who escape slaughter only to land in the confines of a substandard aquarium. We can t forget about the dolphins in captivity, he urges. Places likeSeaWorldwill tell you that we need to capture dolphins and display them with the hope that spectators, in turn, will go out and protect them. There are 50 dolphinariums in Japan, which translates into hundreds of thousands of people who have seen these dolphin shows. Last September, I didn t see one of them at the cove in Taiji. Japan has proven that displaying dolphins and forcing them to do tricks has absolutely nothing to do with conservation. It s a multibillion dollar industry. And the senseless drive hunts continue. To learn more, visit the Save Japan Dolphins Coalition at, the Dolphin Project at, and the Oceanic Preservation Society at