The Japanese dolphin hunts

Over 20,000 of small whales and dolphins are killed every year in “drive hunts”, hand-held harpoon and cross-bow hunts, and in so-called “small type coastal whaling” where harpoons are fired from a boat's bow.

Fishermen have killed small cetaceans (dolphins, porpoises and small whales) around the coastlines of Japan for centuries. Currently, over 20,000 of these animals are killed every year in “drive hunts”, hand-held harpoon and cross-bow hunts, and in so-called “small type coastal whaling” where harpoons are fired from a boat's bow. The species targeted by these hunts include Dall's porpoises, Risso's dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, short-finned pilot whales, striped dolphins, spotted dolphins, false killer whales and Baird's beaked whales. Increasingly, these hunts have come under international scrutiny, prompting concern from bodies such as the International Whaling Commission (IWC), on both welfare and conservation grounds. In the last 20 years, over 400,000 small cetaceans have been killed in Japanese waters.

One particularly controversial form of these hunts, and the focus of this report, is the “drive hunt” (sometimes called the “drive fishery” or “oikomiryou” in Japanese), in which dolphins and small whales are corralled by boats and driven, sometimes by their hundreds, into shallow water where they are killed for their meat and blubber.

Not all the dolphins are killed, however. A growing and disturbing trend has surfaced that links the thriving aquarium ('captivity') industry to this archaic practice. Instead of driving dolphins to their death for human consumption and fertilizer, or as a means of what might be described as “pest control”, resulting from claims that dolphins significantly compete for fish with fisherman, fishing cooperatives are collaborating with national and international aquaria and marine amusement parks to select dolphins from these hunts for public display and human-dolphin interaction programmes.

These hunts present a significant threat to both the welfare and conservation of the cetacean populations they target. They continue contrary to the repeated recommendations of the IWC and its Scientific Committee and the Government of Japan's claims that it pursues a policy of sustainable utilization of marine resources.

Furthermore, the edible products of the dolphins taken in these hunts are often highly polluted with contaminants including mercury and organic compounds such as PCBs, and can pose a risk to human consumers.

Despite intense international criticism of the inhumane methods of slaughter employed, and as Japanese prefectures appeared to be on the verge of abandoning the hunts, the demand for live animals to supply a growing number of marine parks and aquaria is emerging as a primary motivating factor for the drive hunts to continue in Japan. This report explores the nature of this demand and the role of the aquarium industry that purchases live animals from these hunts. This cooperation between the aquarium industry and the drive hunts is a devastating development for Japan's dolphins.

Mislabelled and contaminated meat

Further to work stimulated by WDC, in 1999, two independent Japanese toxicologists, working with American geneticists, tested samples of raw, cooked and canned cetacean meat, blubber and organs on sale across Japan, to determine what contaminants they contained and what species they came from. They found that more than one quarter of the samples identified using DNA techniques were mislabelled - i.e. they contained the DNA of species other than, or in addition to, the one advertised. 75% of these mis-advertised products contained at least one pollutant type at a level above regulatory limits set for human food by national and international authorities. Nearly all the mislabelled samples contained tissues from dolphins, which are typically amongst the most highly contaminated of all marine species, living at the top of the food chain and therefore accumulating the highest level of contaminants in their tissues. Japan's Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare conducted its own tests of five cetacean species and, as expected, the results published in 2002 identified similar levels of contamination to those found in 1999 and subsequently. In a separate study, the government also identified a problem with the mislabelling of whale meat.

Despite this, the government has actually increased the amount of whale meat entering the market place since 2000, promoted its consumption, and even subsidized its sale to school lunch programmes.Japanese drive hunters taking dolphin for captive display facility

Recent market analyses continue to find exceedingly high levels of mercury in whale and dolphin meat for sale in supermarket chains throughout Japan. Studies published in 2005 that tested samples of products from 10 species of small cetacean intended for human consumption revealed the mercury concentrations again exceeded the government permitted level. The highest concentration of methyl mercury was found in a striped dolphin and was found to be 87 times higher than the permitted level. While the Japanese government has issued specific advice to pregnant women about limited consumption of small cetacean meat, the toxicologists recommended the advice be urgently revised.