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Business as Usual in Taiji?

Another drive hunt season has come to an end in the coastal whaling town of Taiji, Japan. Looking at the numbers of dolphins killed this season, there has been much speculation about what the trends might be telling us. With a preliminary and unofficial count, it appears that fewer dolphins than last season were rounded up, killed, and chosen alive for aquaria in Japan and elsewhere this year.

Although it might be tempting to speculate whether this year’s numbers are indicative of more general trends at work in Taiji, encouraging us to wonder about the future of the dolphin drive hunts, the complexities and interdependencies of contributing factors to the drive hunts prevent a simple analysis and conclusion. What is clear is that the dolphin drive hunts in Taiji involve a complex interplay between consumer demand, whaling politics, nationalism, government regulation, and a whaling town’s localized response to the outside pressures of a global society increasingly opposed to the killing or capture of dolphins. What is less clear is whether the lower numbers from this season portend a positive future for dolphins in Japan.

With a government-established quota of around 2,000 dolphins of mixed species annually, the numbers of individuals killed in these hunts has waxed and waned over the past decade, and even in the wake of the documentary The Cove. Numbers of dolphins taken into captivity have actually been on the rise over the past several years, with this most recent season showing a downward trend.

For instance, if we look just at the numbers of just bottlenose dolphins captured and killed this year over last, they are significantly lower.  For the 2013 season, 144 bottlenose dolphins were reportedly killed, and 121 were taken alive into captivity. In contrast, for the most recent season, 28 bottlenose dolphins were killed, and 41 were taken into captivity. This may be more a byproduct of JAZA (Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums) member facilities’ special focus and newer policy on herding bottlenose dolphins in smaller groups and releasing those not taken into captivity instead of killing them rather than any indication of waning consumer demand that has been speculated by some. For some perspective, according to Japan Fisheries Agency statistics, between 2000 and 2013, approximately 17,686 dolphins have been killed, and 1,406 live captured for captivity.

What is less clear is whether we can say a relative reduction in overall numbers of dolphins (whether speaking of all dolphins species or just bottlenose) killed or captured in Taiji is a reflection of increasing local or global protests, ‘reformed’ methods of focused captures of bottlenose dolphins brokered through WAZA (World Association of Zoos and Aquariums) and JAZA’s concessionary ‘dolphin management protocol’, localized depletion of certain species, or the susceptible rhythms of nature where global warming trends may have impacted the migratory paths of offshore populations, making them less available for chase and capture.

Furthermore, it is important to note that even the official numbers provided to the Fisheries Agency by the Taiji Fishing Cooperative are likely gross estimates, failing to provide for the numbers of individuals that have drowned, were fatally injured, or perished later from the stress and trauma associated with the chase and capture process, never to be accounted for. Although total allowable quotas for all species are usually not met, some species are targeted more heavily than others—for instance, there is speculation that fishermen have gone over their allotted quota for Risso’s dolphins this season, and striped dolphins, a species that has been the subject of numerous resolutions of concern by the IWC on sustainability grounds, has been heavily targeted over the past several seasons.

Opinions and strategies regarding perceived solutions to end the dolphin drive hunts vary along a spectrum of direct intervention to non-confrontational outreach and relationship-building to foster cross-cultural understanding . We are aware of a growing sentiment against the hunts within Japan, and have worked for decades to foster awareness and appreciation within Japan through our Japanese partners and friends. We believe that supporting this movement from within the country is the most sustainable approach for the longer term and continue to support local initiatives on the ground and the individuals who engage with authorities in Japan.

Recently, the Japan Times profiled an article highlighting the challenges that Japanese activists face within the strict cultural norms and tolerance levels within their country, and the often-unintended consequences of foreign activists motivated to make as much noise as possible in protest of whale and dolphin killing. 

WDC continues its work within Japan, often behind the scenes and through initiatives in support of our Japanese partners that are working to nurture appreciation for whales and dolphins. We are also active in confronting the hunts on a number of other levels, from documenting and raising awareness of the hunts, engaging with US and Japanese authorities, and taking part in peaceful protests.

Among other initiatives:

  • We have worked with the marine mammal scientific community to garner a public statement against these hunts, and helped secure a congressional resolution condemning the practice.
  • WDC has also worked to secure statements from the public display industry against the hunts, recognizing their role in fueling the dolphin drive hunts through the demand they generate by either directly, or indirectly, sourcing live dolphins from these hunts. See WDC’s report Driven by Demand at  which details this devastating relationship between global captive facilities and the dolphin drive hunts. We continue our dialogue with WAZA and support our Japanese counterparts in their engagement with JAZA as we seek an end to these hunts.
  • Within Japan, we have developed an education campaign with our Japanese colleagues to educate the public about whales and dolphins, their beauty, their biology and the threats that they face. WDC also contributed to the development of the Beautiful Whale Project, an attempt to bring art, science and communities together in search of common ground in our love and appreciation for whales and dolphins.
  • WDC has also released important information that reveals the cruel killing methods currently utilized in the drive hunts, presenting it to the international scientific community and mobilizing diplomatic efforts to address the welfare concerns associated with these methods. Based on video footage secured by WDC, this independent veterinary analysis was published in an international scientific journal and revealed disturbing levels of physical trauma and extreme cruelty that fall well below international standards for animal welfare. 
  • We are currently running a campaign encouraging airlines and carriers around the globe to discontinue carriage of dolphins acquired from the wild, and specifically from the drive hunts in Taiji, Japan. WDC’s Horror Behind the Curtain campaign focuses the world’s attention on the extreme cruelty involved in the killing of dolphins and small whales in the drive hunts in Japan and links this annual slaughter to the international trade in live dolphins for the aquarium industry and the airlines that carry them to their destinations.
  • We have supported toxicological studies of whale and dolphin meat to expose the high levels of metals and other contaminants with implications for human health and consumption within Japan.
  • We continue our support of the Japanese whale watching community with hope that the Japanese public’s love of whales and dolphins can eventually transform the Government of Japan’s more lethal policies.
  • And finally, as it does every year, WDC participates annually in Japan Dolphin Day demonstrations to lend our support to thousands of others worldwide to celebrate dolphins and rally against the dolphin drive hunts in Japan, complementing our direct outreach with Japanese and US Embassies.

We all want to believe that our collective efforts and outreach are having an impact upon hearts and minds around the world, and most especially within Japan. We can look to the numbers of individual whales and dolphins killed as a potential barometer of changing trends, but they may not be as reliable a predictor for the future of whale and dolphin protection in Japan as the growing groundswell of concerned and motivated activists, academics, whale-watchers, artists and other whale and dolphin lovers within Japan who are willing to challenge the system and risk being labeled counter-culture to fight for the lives of these special creatures.

Please add your voice to our campaign to end the dolphin hunts.