In a decision being heralded “the beginning of the end for dolphin hunting,” Japan’s peak zoo association has voted to stop members purchasing dolphins captured in the globally condemned Taiji hunts.

The result follows legal action from animal welfare charity Australia for Dolphins, which led the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) to suspend its Japanese member due to involvement in the hunts last month.

Following the lawsuit, WAZA gave its Japanese member an ultimatum: stop the live capture of dolphins from Taiji by May, 21, 2015, or face expulsion.

Not being part of the world association would have meant the Japanese zoos could not exchange animals, participate in breeding programs, or access global data. For the majority of Japanese zoos and aquariums the possibility of being isolated from these advantages was too great to risk supporting dolphin hunting.

The vote, which closed on the 19th of May, tallied results from the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums’89 zoos and 63 aquariums. In order to remain part of the global zoo network, the majority voted to stop purchasing dolphins captured in the annual Taiji hunts.

The result was announced by the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA) at a press conference in Tokyo last night. 

After years of maintained pressure, multiple protests, and a recent high-profile lawsuit, dolphin welfare advocates are welcoming today’s result as meaningful progress.

“We are absolutely delighted to hear Japanese zoos and aquariums have voted to uphold international animal welfare standards and stop purchasing Taiji dolphins,” states the CEO of Australia for Dolphins, Sarah Lucas, “This momentous decision marks the beginning of the end for dolphin hunting in Japan.”

According to Lucas, animal welfare groups around the world have been pleading with WAZA to stop member organisations taking dolphins from Taiji for more than a decade. NGOs such as ELSA Nature Conservancy, Save Japan Dolphins, Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project and Australia for Dolphins have all played an advocacy role. While cove monitors from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society helped expose the unthinkable cruelty of the hunts to a worldwide audience.

Veteran campaigner Richard O’Barry, who starred in the 2009 documentary The Cove, affirmed the importance of capitalising on this momentum.

“AFD’s lawsuit created a tipping point,” O’Barry states. “Not much movement on the part of WAZA or JAZA until the lawsuit was filed. We need to keep the pressure on.”

What’s Next 

Undeniably, today’s decision is a significant financial blow to the Taiji dolphin trade – one that may be difficult to recover from.

Live dolphins captured in Taiji can sell for up to $100,000 – more than ten times the amount dolphins butchered for meat are worth. These figures suggest it is the aquarium market, not the sale of meat that motivates the world’s largest dolphin trade.

“JAZA aquariums provide up to 40 percent of total demand for live dolphins from Taiji. So, as of today, the market for Taiji dolphins could be nearly cut in half,” states Ms. Lucas, “Without demand, the hunts won’t continue. It is the first major step towards ending the Taiji dolphin hunts once and for all.”

Despite this success, Lucas insists Australia for Dolphins will continue legal action against WAZA, which represents an international community of 1,300 zoos and aquariums.

“We commend WAZA for the role it has played to bring about this decision,” she states. “The result demonstrates that WAZA has enormous influence over its network of zoos and aquariums. Unfortunately there are other WAZA members that have purchased dolphins and whales from Taiji and other inhumane hunts.”

She continues, “We’re asking the association to enforce its Code of Ethics and Animal Welfare proactively across the board. We want to make sure no WAZA member, from anywhere in the world, can purchase a dolphin from Taiji or other cruel hunts ever again.”

The next hearing in the ongoing court action will take place in Switzerland in June.

Image source: Kashyap Hosdurga/Flickr