Blood stained the waters of Taiji Cove on Tuesday as 30 – 40 bottlenose dolphins were slaughtered. Fisherman put up a blue tarpaulin to hide their activities while they dragged the exhausted dolphins into the shallow waters near the shore, before spearing the animals in the spine.
The dolphins had been without food or rest since their capture five days previously, and were too weak and exhausted to escape or fight their captors. Many dolphins had sustained injuries from trying to leap the nets that imprisoned them, or from the propellers of the boats driving them into ever-smaller enclosures.
An estimated 50 juvenile dolphins had already been separated from their family pods and sent to be sold into a lifetime of captivity. The remaining dolphins not selected for slaughter (too small to count for the annual quota, or deemed undesirable for exhibition in aquariums) were driven back out to sea. Research suggests many of the dolphins released from Taiji Cove will die in the next several days as a result of the stress, starvation, and injuries they have sustained during their capture.
Dolphins live in close family groups, with sophisticated social interaction between members. Recent research has suggested that members of dolphin pods are given names by the other dolphins. When dolphins are separated, they call to each other using specific names. Other than humans, dolphins are the only mammal known to do this.
The researchers said dolphins copy the signature whistles of loved ones, such as a mother or close male buddy, when the two are apart. These “names” were never emitted in aggressive or antagonistic situations and were only directed toward loved ones.
United States Ambassador Caroline Kennedy said on Monday that she was “deeply concerned” by the hunt and said the U.S. opposes the practice. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf confirmed Kennedy’s statement, saying,
"The US does remain committed to the global moratorium on commercial whaling, and we are concerned with both the sustainability and the humaneness of the Japanese dolphin hunts. We have been very clear that this is our position, and we remain concerned about it. And the ambassador was expressing our view that we’ve made public for a long time."
Japan’s response was curt, saying that killing dolphins is not banned under international law and the animals are not endangered. Local officials in Taiji say the hunt is a “cultural tradition” and an economic necessity for an area that has little else in the way of industry, and accuse campaigners of cultural insensitivity.
However, Sakae Hemmi of the Elsa Nature Conservancy of Japan says the statement of Taiji officials is inaccurate. In an open letter to Dr. Gerald Dick, Executive Director of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) (which includes as a member the Japan Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA), one of whose members is the Taiji Whale Museum, which brokers dolphins from the dolphin hunts around the world), she said:
"In fact, the history of dolphin hunting in Taiji is short. According to The History of Taiji, edited and published by Taiji town in 1979, the 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. Furthermore, in 1969, the main goal of the dolphin drive was to capture pilot whales as prized showpieces for the Taiji Whale Museum. In other words, the dolphin drive was purely for profit, having nothing to do with cultural history."
On Wednesday, in spite of worldwide protests, Taiji fishermen returned to the ocean to continue the dolphin hunt.