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Death toll continues to rise in Taiji

Although a new year is upon us, we take somber pause in recognizing current events in the dolphin drive hunts in Taiji. December has been a deadly month for dolphins in Japan, and more recent developments brokered by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, known as WAZA and the Japanese zoo authority, JAZA, if left unchallenged, will ensure that the brutal hunts in Taiji continue. In the month of December alone, over 165 dolphins (including spotted, striped, Risso’s and pilot whales) have been killed in the cove in Taiji. An additional 21 individuals have been taken alive from these hunts into captivity. 

Although WAZA has made statements in the past against the dolphin drive hunts, and has indicated that all WAZA-member facilities must adhere to the WAZA code of ethics and refrain from aquiring dolphins from these cruel hunts for captive dolphin attractions, the zoo and aquaria association has done little to reprimand or penalize those member facilities that continue to source dolphins from these hunts.

More recently, in a series of meetings with both JAZA and Japanese NGOs, WAZA has taken a serious backstep in its continuing dialogue with JAZA by explicitly endorsing the capture methods being employed during the drive hunts. As a concession to JAZA, WAZA has made it clear that the practice of rounding up dolphins during the drive hunts is an acceptable method of acquiring dolphins, erasing over a decade of its ethical policies opposing this practice.

The recent meetings have clarified WAZA’s position on the live capture of bottlenose and other species in the dolphin drive hunts. Essentially, current policy allows JAZA-member aquaria, Dolphin Base/Dolphin Resort, and the Taiji Town Development Public Corporation to select bottlenose dolphins during the month of September for captivity. Those bottlenose dolphins left unsold are supposed to be returned to the sea and not slaughtered for their meat. Other species may be captured alive or killed for their meat without restriction.

Similarly, during the rest of the season (October through April), if the Fisheries Union decides to round-up bottlenose dolphins specifically for JAZA-member aquaria, smaller pods are supposed to be driven into the bay in what are being labeled ‘gentler herding exercises’ meant to imply a separation between drives conducted for acquiring dolphins for captivity, and drives conducted for meat. If dolphins during these ‘special’ drives are left unsold, non-JAZA members are given the chance to purchase dolphins, and any remaining dolphins are supposed to be returned to the ocean, and not killed for meat. Essentially, if JAZA-member facilities are involved, bottlenose dolphins, at least, are supposed to be spared the knife anytime during the season.

JAZA is a member of WAZA, and member facilities of JAZA continue to acquire dolphins from these hunts. A recent inventory of captive dolphin facilities in Japan supported by WDC, reveals that of the 104 aquaria in Japan, 67 are JAZA members, and 37 of those members hold dolphins. This means that at least 55% of all JAZA facilities hold dolphins acquired from the dolphin drive hunts.

We believe that WAZA’s failure to act definitively against JAZA and its justifications for continuing engagement in the acquisition of dolphins from the drive hunts has compromised WAZA’s ethical position and contradicts WAZA’s own statements that have been made in the past indicting and condemning these activities. As a result, we believe that WAZA’s ongoing dialogue with JAZA has resulted in the further endorsement of the dolphin drive hunts as a legitimate source for facilities seeking to acquire live dolphins for captive programs, and is thereby supporting the continuation of these cruel hunts.

We have detailed in previous letters our perspectives and disappointment regarding the ‘dolphin management protocol’ that has been offered as a concession to JAZA over the past five years as WAZA has pursued its ‘constructive engagement’ with JAZA. We note that this current approach has failed to produce any progress, including a failure to reduce the numbers of dolphins killed in these hunts or taken into captivity. WAZA’s lack of clear and definitive action against those facilities still acquiring from the drive hunts has resulted in more than 1200 dolphins being caught alive and sent to aquariums since WAZA’s announcement against the drive hunts in 2004.

In addition, as part of an ‘agreement’ between JAZA and the Taiji fishermen, mothers and babies are not to be taken during the drive hunts. This relatively recent practice of releasing some of the captured pod back to the sea, and deliberately attempting not to kill juveniles or babies, is a failed and misguided attempt at public relations: instead of ‘saving’ the young, they are relegated to a certain death in being released back to the ocean without their mothers or families, and after having endured the shock of being driven and held in a cove for many days. These vulnerable dolphins driven back to sea following Taiji’s brutal hunts have little to no chance of survival without the protection of their mothers and pod, and may die of starvation or fall prey to predators.

This compromise policy endorsed by WAZA also makes special exceptions for bottlenose dolphins. Anytime during the year, if JAZA facilities are involved at all, bottlenose dolphins that are not taken into captivity are to be released. Why does WAZA make this special exception for just this species? At least five other species (e.g., Risso’s, false killer whale, pilot whale, pacific white-sided, spotted) are taken alive into captivity from the drive hunts, and are indiscriminately killed in these hunts along with striped dolphins.

Furthermore, considering that monitoring of these activities is left to either NGO observers who continue to document the hunts in Taiji, or partial observers who reportedly may be associated with the Taiji Whale Museum, it is unclear how JAZA– in its collaboration with the fisheries union–will be held accountable to these agreements?

It has become clear that bottlenose dolphins have become the bargaining chip in the misguided negotiations between JAZA, WAZA, and the Taiji fishermen—most likely because they are the species of choice for most dolphinaria, and perhaps because of the “Flipper” mentality that has elicited strong public reaction whenever bottlenose dolphins are held or slaughtered in the cove. The rest of the dolphin species are left out to dry—they can be driven, captured, or killed without restriction and regardless of the real lack of difference this agreed upon protocol actually makes for the dolphin populations around Japan’s coastline.

As reiterated so many times before, in its failure to comply, JAZA should be expelled from WAZA membership as they continue to perpetrate activities in violation of WAZA’s Code of Ethics, casting a black mark on all other WAZA facilities that choose to comply with ethical practices and find any association with the dolphin drive hunts abhorrent.

As long as JAZA remains a recognized member of WAZA in good standing, encouraged to continue its association with the drive hunts, WAZA and all of its members remain affiliated with these hunts, setting the worst kind of example for the zoo and aquaria industry worldwide. It is time for WAZA to step away completely from the dolphin drive hunts in Taiji.

Please support our campaign calling on WAZA to help end the dolphin hunts