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© Regina Asmutis-Silvia, minutes before snow squall

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Hope and Despair: A New Dolphin Drive Hunt Season Begins

Even as thousands were gathering around the world over the weekend at over 100 international locations in unified opposition to the commencement of the dolphin drive hunt season in Taiji, Japan, a pod of bottlenose dolphins was being driven into the cove.  On September 1st, the drive hunt season officially began, with 18 dolphins being selected alive for captive facilities.

Although bottlenose dolphins may be spared slaughter for just the month of September through an official agreement brokered by WAZA (World Association of Zoos and Aquaria) and JAZA (Japan Association of Zoos and Aquaria) which seeks to distance the captivity industry from the actual killing in the cove, this ‘dolphin management protocol’ does nothing to address the continued collusion of the captivity industry in underwriting the slaughters that occur in Taiji.

This misguided policy attempts to disassociate separate ‘herding exercises’ to acquire live dolphins from the rest of the drive hunt season, suggesting that such activities are therefore more humane or ethical than if conducted during hunts where dolphins are killed beneath the tarpaulins.  Unfortunately, the same killing cove used to round up dolphins for captivity is the same cove where dolphins are butchered for meat and the end result is the same: whole families of dolphins are traumatized, injured, and killed in the process of being driven into the cove, whether they are selected alive and consigned to a slow death in captivity, or slaughtered after a brief confinement in the cove. We would argue that captivity is virtually the same as direct killing:  it is a tormented death sentence in either event.

The high prices paid for live bottlenose dolphins are a powerful incentive to continue these hunts in Taiji. WAZA and other captive institutions cannot hide from this fact, despite their overtures to separate live acquisitions from hunts where dolphins are slaughtered. The demand for live dolphins comes not just from within Japan, but from international captive facilities. Taiji has supplied facilities more recently in Dubai, South Korea, China, Iran, Russia, Philippines, Ukraine, Vietnam and Turkey, among other destinations.  According to Cetabase,  a total of 95 dolphins have either been exported or transferred domestically within Japan between January and August 2013. Of those exported, a total of 60 dolphins were sent to China, South Korea, Russia and the Ukraine.

There have also been undocumented rumors that herding exercises are being conducted for captive facilities elsewhere in Japan as part of this ‘management protocol’ to further distance and separate live capture activities from the killing cove.  We cannot support a policy that increases the pressure on all populations of dolphins within Japan’s waters while allowing the killing to continue, whether for acquisition by international facilities that will continue to source from Taiji, or for the various other reasons the hunts continue, including for pest control, meat or politics.   In accepting this unfortunate policy, WAZA and the captivity industry are stepping away from any further obligation in ending the hunts, and absolving itself of any further responsibility for the protection of dolphins in Japan.

And let us not forget that the drive hunts are not the only form of hunting that occurs around the coastline of Japan on an annual basis.  When not engaged in the drive hunts, the fishermen in Taiji also participate in harpoon hunts and small type coastal whaling for dolphins, false killer whales and pilot whales. These harpoon hunts also occur elsewhere in Japan, effectively ensuring that Japan’s dolphins are assaulted and traumatized almost year-round by various hunting methods over the seasons. In fact, the total quota for all small whale and dolphin species allowed to be taken by all hunting methods (harpoon, drive hunts and coastal whaling) in Japan for 2013-2014 is 16,497 individuals.

How can we feel hope amidst all of this despair? As the occupation of Taiji starts with the pilgrimage of individuals compelled to travel to its shores to bear witness to these annual atrocities, we are reminded of the collective humanity that seeks an end to these hunts.  More and more Japanese stand side-by-side with western activists in Taiji in opposition to the killing. Pictures and messages from around the world have set the Internet afire with unified enthusiasm and support for the people of Japan, and disdain for the horrible activities that will be perpetrated in the killing cove over the next 6 to 8 months.  Hope is borne from the infinite potential that resides within the collective will of an international community unified in opposition to cruel traditions and misguided policies.

One’s perspective regarding what it might take to end these hunts will vary along a spectrum of approaches, none of which have been successful in ending the hunts to date. In my view, it will take all approaches to erode the entrenchment of political and cultural attitudes towards whales and dolphins and our human place among them, which is at the heart of the issue. It is true that for every tribe, clan, or nation that is fighting for the right to exploit whales and dolphins, there is an equally entitled tribe of global citizens that want to see these so-called traditional activities come to an end. We are all trying to find a way:  through outreach, promotion of alternatives to the killing, political pressure, and even friendship and love. Perhaps an end to these hunts will involve some form of middle ground or concession that provides the hunters, or their government, a way out.  Or perhaps we will have to be patient and wait until the enlightened and cosmopolitan younger generations interested in a new relationship with whales and dolphins displace the archaic perspectives and traditions of older generations within these communities as they pass on.   It will take its own time, and the colorful and passionate tapestry that is being woven by the human actors mired in these bloody dramas continues to unfold in stalemate at the end of each season.

In the end, the only thing that may stop Japan killing whales and dolphins is the realization and acknowledgement that its people no longer want these practices to continue.  The tide will turn when the Japanese policymakers face the full force of international pressure but also look inward to what the people of Japan want and need for the 21st century.  And that change must happen in Tokyo, not just in Taiji. It is fair and, indeed necessary, to be clear where we disagree with such cruel practices because that is where the conversation starts, and where a better and more compassionate world can begin.  However, a decision to end dolphin killing altogether will be based on more than reaction to public protest, whether it is on the high seas, or in Taiji.  Unsustainable government subsidies, waning interest and appetite in whale meat, increasing public awareness, and politics are other reasons Japan may eventually discard its whale-hunting fleets and conform to new ethical norms and directions in our treatment of these sentient beings.

All cruel customs, no matter how deeply rooted in tradition or however justified, should be exposed, and bearing witness to these hunts is a critical part of this process. And so is protesting and raising awareness on your street corner and within your communities.  There will always be hope among the despair as long as there is even one voice that speaks for an end to the suffering.  It could be yours that makes all of the difference. Thank you to all who continue to dedicate your lives, energies, and circles of influence to seeking an end to these hunts.

A perfect image emerged from the rain that fell upon Japan Dolphin Day in Phoenix–against the backdrop of dark skies was a double rainbow that served as a momentary source of hope in our sustained commitment to see a brighter future for the dolphins in Japan.