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The beginning of a new year is a good time to take a broader look at the progress of the notorious annual dolphin slaughters taking place in Taiji, Japan. As depicted in the Academy Award-winning documentary, The Cove, the hunts have generated worldwide controversy and condemnation, but continue just the same.

The Cove came out in 2009, and many people are surprised and upset that the dolphin slaughter continues, despite the publicity surrounding The Cove. But there have been changes, some major.

When Earth Island Institute began our Save Japan Dolphins Campaign in 2004, about 1,600 dolphins were killed in Taiji that year. Last season (Sept. 2013 to Feb. 2014), about 835 dolphins were killed. Our contacts within Taiji tell us the reason for the decline is that the market for dolphin meat has also been in decline. The hunters are killing fewer dolphins because they cannot sell the meat. We believe our efforts in Japan, along with that of other organizations, to educate the Japanese people about the dangers of high levels of mercury and PCBs found in dolphin meat has helped trigger this market decline. We are making progress.


Trade in Live Dolphins

On the other hand, the trade in live dolphins has increased substantially in recent years. A live trained dolphin on the international market can bring as much as $155,000 USD or more. Most such live dolphins, which are caught in Taiji by the dolphin hunters alongside the captivity industry representatives, are going to dolphinariums in Japan (which has more than 100 facilities with live dolphins), China (where aquariums with dolphins are a major tourist attraction), and the Middle East. As a dead dolphin may bring around $500-$600US when sold for meat on the market, it is clear that the international captivity industry is subsidizing these terrible hunts.

The gruesome hunts begin on September 1st each year, and can go through March, although they usually end earlier (again, due to lack of demand) around the end of February.

The current hunt season, then, is more than half over. What is the trend this year, compared to last year?

The total kill of dolphins in Taiji from Sept. to Dec. 2014 was 367, (although at least 20 more have been killed in January so far). These numbers are running about the same as last year at this time. Last season (2013-2014) was the lowest year of dolphin kills we have seen at only 835 dolphins killed for the whole season. However, there are still two months to go in the current season (2014-2015), and the Taiji hunters show no signs of giving up the chase. If they come across one or two large pods of dolphins in the next two months, they can easily make up for their annual quota, which this year totals 1,938 dolphins, issued by the rapacious Japan Fisheries Agency.

Obviously, the quotas also do not include those dolphins that may be injured or lost during the chase and during release, so the number of dolphins dying is clearly much higher than the numbers posted by the Japan Fisheries Agency. This “cryptic kill” is not counted against the quotas.

Another reason for the release of dolphins is that Taiji is having trouble selling dolphin meat, due to consumer concerns with mercury. Sources in Taiji have told us that the market for dolphin meat continues to be poor, so rather than fill up their limited freezer units space with dolphin meat that cannot be sold, the dolphin hunters release the dolphins.

This season the dolphin hunters have not caught as many dolphins as last season for a life in captivity. So far, about 33 dolphins have been caught, versus 68 caught last year at this time. This may again be due to the fact that they already have saturated the market for live dolphins. Another explanation is that this year fewer pods of bottlenose dolphins have been caught by the Taiji hunters. This is the species most sought after by the global captive industry.

Seventeen spotted dolphins have reportedly been caught this season for captivity, but this species does very poorly in captivity relative to bottlenose and other dolphins. The dolphin hunters may have a special order for this species, but likely they just caught them because they have caught so few bottlenose dolphins. Many of the spotted dolphins will likely die in Taiji before they even get to an aquarium somewhere else.

Is There an End in Sight?

Will the dolphin hunts end? We believe so, as more and more Japanese consumers learn about the dangers of eating dolphin meat, and as the older generation of Japanese who still eat whale and dolphin meat pass on. Younger generations are not interested in eating whale and dolphin meat, preferring other foods. International pressure on the Japanese government has not yeilded many positive results – the government Fisheries Agency is an entity on its own, having tremendous political power and feeding off its own revenue sources. The U.S. government in particular, while giving lip service to supporting an end to whale and dolphin hunts, has not taken any significant action against their ally Japan.

The real villain of Taiji is the captivity industry. By subsidizing the hunts in paying the hunters huge rewards for the capture of a handful of show dolphins, the industry supports the slaughter of the balance. The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums has a policy stating opposition to taking dolphins from drive hunts such as those in Taiji, but it is simply ignored by the industry as a whole. Don’t feel good about it – it is a scam. It is time for the industry to stand up to the dolphinariums in their midst, that have created an insatiable monster destroying the very animals they claim to “love” and conserve.

Other countries are starting to take their own actions. Many have banned dolphinariums altogether. The government of India, through the work of Earth Island working with local NGOs, has gone a step further, not only banning dolphinariums but also further declaring that dolphins are “nonhuman persons” that deserve their own rights to exist.

Japan and the United States must do the same.

Cove Report Graphic by Helena González.

This article was written in collaboration with Laura Bridgeman.

The authors wish to thank for many of the statistics used here from Taiji, which are collected from reports by Sea Shepherd’s Cove Guardians.

Lead image source: D Mangus/Flickr