Each year beginning Sept. 1 and ending sometime in March, hundreds of dolphins are hounded from the open ocean by Japanese fishermen, into a narrow, death-trap cove that fronts the small town in Taiji, Japan. In the narrow bay bordered by steep, rocky cliffs, family pods are separated forever.
The younger dolphins and pilot whales will be sold to aquariums in Japan and around the world. The rest will be impaled on hooks and harpoons, dying a slow death from blood loss or drowning. Then their bodies will be dragged through the blood-red water to the dockside slaughterhouse, where they will be butchered.
Although tests of fish caught off the coast of Japan have shown evidence of heavy mercury contamination, the meat will be sold and eaten across East Asia.
The 2009 Academy Award-winning documentary, “The Cove” brought worldwide media exposure to the slaughter, and increased pressure from the public helped to lower the kill numbers each year. During the 2012 – 2013 season, roughly 900 dolphins were slaughtered.
However, as the demand for dead dolphins has dropped, demand for live ones has skyrocketed. Young, live dolphins can fetch prices of USD$150,000 or more. The dolphins are sold to aquariums, where they will live out the rest of their lives in captivity.
During the 2011-2012 season, about 50 dolphins were sent to captivity. In the 2012 – 2013 season, that number leapt sharply to 250. This season, an estimated 100 dolphins have been separated for captivity.
The dolphins being held today in Taiji cove included an albino calf, extremely rare among these marine mammals. Throughout the world, there have only been 14 recorded sightings of albino bottlenose dolphins since the first in 1962, so this albino calf can command a price in the millions.
It is precisely this kind of exploitation that drives the annual slaughter, environmental activists say. The government of Japan maintains that it is a cultural tradition, but activists point out that the live-dolphin trade, with its multi-million dollar payoff, is the real focus of the annual drive. Remove the live-captive dolphin trade, they say, and the dolphin hunts will disappear.
The live-captive dolphin trade has far-reaching repercussions. In the wild, dolphins form tightly-bonded family groups, and are highly social animals. They often work cooperatively together, and schools of dolphins have been known to come to the aid of an injured dolphin, holding it on the surface of the water for days to make sure it doesn’t drown. Dolphin calves stay with their mother after they are weaned for anywhere from 3 – 8 years.
At Taiji, calves are separated from their mothers, family members are killed in front of each other, and the terror, stress, and panic take an enormous toll on the few survivors. US government research found that mortality rates in bottlenose dolphins increase by six times immediately after capture.
(The albino calf in this capture is extremely likely to have limited sight and hearing, genetic defects which are common with albinism. As of this writing, the calf had already been separated from its mother and was placed on a truck for transport. With its genetic defects, it is unlikely to survive without its mother's support.)
To help stop the slaughter, marine activist organization, The Sea Shepherd, has some information on their website. Concerned animal advocates have also been leaving comments on social media via Twitter and on Facebook (Japan Information and Culture Center (JICC), Embassy of Japan and the Taiji Whale Museum).