Japan’s infamous annual dolphin hunt officially begins today, heralding six months of mass slaughter for hundreds of animals.
The dolphins and pilot whales (a type of dolphin) are herded by boats and loud noises into an inlet in Taiji, Japan, where they are trapped with no avenue for escape. Some of the younger animals will be selected for live shipment to aquariums, but most will be slaughtered in what is, for them, an orgy of terror.
Dolphins live in extended family units, called “pods”. In “Drive Hunts”, such as the one that takes place in Taiji, entire pods of dolphins are caught this way. Elders, reproducing age adults, pregnant females, adolescents, and babies are all driven into Taiji Cove. Sometimes, the pod will slip away from the boats or the pod will get separated, but more often than not, the entire pod is captured and corralled in the Drive Hunt.
After separating the younger, more desirable animals for entertainment venues, the remaining dolphins are hacked and speared to death. These methods of killing have recently been modified to reduce the vast amounts of blood that turn the shallow waters of Taiji Cove bright red. Hunters push a metal rod into the spinal cord of the dolphin and insert a wooden plug in the resulting hole to staunch the flow of blood. The dolphin, although paralyzed, remains alive and fully conscious of what is happening around it.
The injured dolphin is later dragged by the tail to the gutting barge (often drowning in the process, if it is not already dead), where it is gutted and split.
The annual killing spree was chronicled in the 2009 Academy Award-winning documentary film, The Cove, which helped bring world attention to the dolphin hunt and slaughter. Animal activists have protested and monitored the hunt for years, and this year, Japanese animal activists took the lead in the protest at Taiji.
Activists for “Save Japan Dolphins” have also planned a series of protests in about 100 cities around the world, where they will hold peaceful demonstrations outside Japanese embassies and consular offices.
The director of The Cove, Louie Psihoyos, says the Taiji dolphin hunt also has serious negative implications for food safety in Japan. In 2007, a significant amount of wild dolphin meat from the region was found to be contaminated with toxic loads of mercury.
In Taiji, dolphin meat was a common ingredient in school lunches, but was removed after the results of a study revealed mercury levels up to 100 parts per million in samples of dolphin species routinely killed in Taiji cove. The Japanese government allows a mercury level of just .4 parts per million in its fish products.
Concerns about mercury contamination, and about the brutal slaughter at Taiji Cove and other Japanese locations, has driven down Japanese demand for dolphin meat to about one-third of the popularity it once enjoyed.
However, as the demand for dolphin meat has decreased, the demand for live dolphins has increased. Live dolphins may fetch up to US$ 3,200, and trained dolphins can command prices of US$ 150,000, thus replacing one profit driver of the dolphin slaughter industry, with another.
According to Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), although numbers killed each season fluctuate, last season saw the lowest number of animals killed in 10 years, but a record high number of animals, 247, captured for public display. In the prior season, only 68 were taken alive.
In spite of growing worldwide condemnation of dolphin hunts, the practice continues. While The Cove brought attention to the Drive Hunts in Japan, dolphin hunting is thriving in several other countries, including Denmark, the Solomon Islands, and the Faroe Islands, in the north Atlantic.