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JAZA decides to comply with WAZA’s Code of Ethics. What next?

News broke today that the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA), after a board meeting and vote of its membership, would respond to the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (WAZA) recent suspension by announcing that it would comply with WAZA’s ethical mandates to no longer procure live dolphins from the dolphin drive hunts in Taiji.  JAZA’s decision effectively bans all member facilities from acquiring dolphins from the Taiji dolphin drive hunts.

WAZA voted to suspend JAZA on April 22nd on the basis that JAZA has been in violation of WAZA’s code of ethics and animal welfare that requires members to not take animals from the wild through cruel and non-selective methods such as the drive hunts.   JAZA had a 30-day grace period to respond to the suspension.

Although many groups have aimed their protests against WAZA more recently, WDC was one of the first to document the connection between the drive hunts and aquaria, and has spent over a decade engaged in direct dialogue with WAZA regarding its members’ association with these hunts.  More recently, we have been critical of the concessions made between WAZA and JAZA by shedding light on the negotiated ‘dolphin management protocol‘ that allowed acquisition from the hunts by JAZA members to continue and represented a stark contradiction of WAZA’s strong statements and resolutions against the hunts stemming from 2004.

According to a recent Elsa Nature Conservancy inventory supported by WDC, nearly 68% of the aquaria that do hold dolphins in Japan are JAZA members. This suggests that JAZA members may represent the majority of procurement activity in Taiji. This also means their decision to no longer source from the drive hunts may have a significant impact on the other facilities that are not members of JAZA, and hopefully stem the trade in drive hunt dolphins with global aquaria that continue to source from the drive hunts. This inventory found nearly 600 dolphins—most of them bottlenose—being held in at least 54 aquaria in Japan.

Although the full details of JAZA’s decision and its subsequent directives to its members are yet to be clarified, we welcome this significant step by JAZA in withdrawing from these brutal hunts. It is unclear whether this agreement restricts JAZA members from just Taiji-associated procurement of live dolphins or any captures using these herding procedures. As a result, we must still be concerned about captures that may occur elsewhere in Japan as JAZA member aquaria compensate for this decision, or non-JAZA facilities continue their business as usual.

A significant body of peer-reviewed scientific literature exists detailing the physiological, behavioral, psychological, and socio-ecological impacts that chase, encirclement and capture have on dolphins.  The majority of the literature reveals that acute and chronic stress-related impacts, as well as direct mortality, may result from prolonged and sustained capture techniques, such as those associated with the drive hunts, but also with other capture operations. That is why we must be concerned with all capture operations seeking to acquire dolphins from the wild.

There is a growing trend within the modern aquarium industry to not acquire whales and dolphins from the wild for public display.  WDC participated in the Virgin Holiday stakeholder process that culminated in the Virgin Pledge that provides a mechanism for all facilities to commit to no longer sourcing dolphins from wild populations.  Indeed, the Pledge signifies that modern aquariums in the US and other parts of the world have committed to not capture wild cetaceans and this can set the bar for what is acceptable in the zoological community. By providing a vehicle for facilities to disavow future captures from the wild, the Pledge provides a mechanism to help the public display industry respond to evolve and turn towards a progressive path of least impact and harm to dolphins and the marine environment.

These cruel hunts are indeed driven in part by the demand from Japanese and global aquaria. Despite the political complexities surrounding the dolphin drive hunts in Taiji, JAZA’s decision to step away from the drive hunts as a source for procuring live dolphins is a big step, and one that will hopefully contribute to an end to these hunts. We must still be concerned, however, with all wild captures, and as long as zoo and aquaria keep the door open for acquisition from the wild, dolphins will suffer. 

We must continue our vigilance in monitoring those aquaria who may still decide to participate in these hunts, expose international aquaria who may still seek to import dolphins from these cruel sources, and watch for the real consequences of JAZA’s decision as the zoo and aquaria community in Japan comes to terms with the new boundaries imposed by these restrictions. As we turn our sights towards the prefectural and Taiji town authorities who will continue to regulate and manage the hunts in light of JAZA’s recent decision, we will continue our outreach in Japan and our dialogue within the zoo and aquarium industry with the hope of ending these, and all wild captures, once and for all.