09/03/2009 03:53 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Cove: Why Is the Japanese Government Hell-Bent on Killing Dolphins?

No doubt by now you've heard the buzz about The Cove, the eco-thriller documentary that exposes the horrific practice of dolphin slaughtering -- some 23,000 a year -- in the otherwise sleepy town of Taiji, Japan. The movie, which opens nationwide this Friday, won the audience award at Sundance and is as brilliant and spectacular as everyone says it is; it will wrench the hearts of those who neither call themselves animal lover nor environmentalist, and will go a long way toward inspiring people to take action and hopefully demand protection for dolphins in much the same way that the 1986 International Whaling Commission ban did for whales (although Japan is still technically allowed to continue whaling under scientific research permits -- more on this later).

Much of the film's story centers around activist Richard O'Barry, a marine mammal specialist for the Earth Island Institute and the original trainer for the five dolphins who played Flipper in that eponymous mainstay of 1960s television. After spending 10 years working with dolphins in captivity, he came to recognize their profound intelligence -- even advanced consciousness -- and the cruelty of their imprisonment. When Kathy, the dolphin who played Flipper most of the time, died in his arms after being depressed from years in captivity, he vowed to devote his life to freeing these sensitive creatures.

It's this determination that led O'Barry to Taiji, a fishing village that has become a big player in the billion-dollar dolphin entertainment industry, capturing countless dolphins for aquariums and marine parks around the world. But what's hidden from the public in a remote cove is the grizzly fate of the dolphins who are not selected for a show biz future. After teaming up with filmmaker Louis Psihoyos, the Oceanic Preservation Society, and a Mossad-worthy team of experts (including a Hollywood special effects expert and world-renowned freedivers), the crew set out on a mission to film the dolphin massacre and reveal it to the world.

After seeing The Cove this past weekend, there's one question I can't seem to answer -- and, spectacular as their investigative reporting is, the filmmakers can't really figure out, either: Why are Japanese fishermen and the Japanese government hell-bent on killing dolphins? With live dolphins caught in Taiji selling for up to $150,000 a pop, it's clear why the fishermen are so intent on capturing them. But a dead dolphin, as we learn in the film, sells for about $600 and is contaminated with levels of mercury so toxic that it renders the meat inedible. Only a tiny percentage of people in Japan actually knowingly eat dolphin, and most are unaware that it is even consumed at all -- Tokyo residents interviewed for the film were shocked to learn that dolphins were being slaughtered for food. Much of the dolphin purchased in the country is falsely labeled as whale meat, and a 2006 Nippon Research Center survey revealed that 95 percent of Japanese have never eaten, or rarely eat, whale meat. How can such a minuscule market warrant the slaughter of 23,000 dolphins a year?

The bad publicity generated by this movie may mean the end of dolphin shows at SeaWorld and the closing of the cove in Taiji, which would go a long way toward rescuing thousands of dolphins -- and restoring the balance of marine ecosystems everywhere -- but until we understand what's truly behind the desire to wipe out the dolphins, we'll never solve the problem completely. One possible theory briefly touched upon in the film is that some Japanese government officials view dolphins as "pests" that are responsible for declining fish stocks worldwide. And while the Japanese have every right to be concerned about their primary food source, I find it implausible that any intelligent person could truly believe that dolphins are responsible for fish disappearing from our oceans. What seems the more likely cause: the exploding human population and our insatiable desire for bluefin tuna and Chilean sea bass, or dolphins, which have been an integral part of the marine ecosystem for 10 million years?

So, what is it? Is it a need to hold onto the same "cultural" traditions that have perpetuated Japanese whaling under the guise of research after nearly every country in the world has abandoned the practice (although the cultural argument is, in fact, a fallacy; according to Greenpeace International, Japan"s whaling tradition dates back only a few centuries -- as long as Britain's). Is it a "screw you" to the hypocrisy of the Americans, with their Happy Meals and factory farms that are arguably as gruesome a sight as the final reveal at the end of the film (although one could reason that it's not fair to compare the slaughter of domesticated animals to that of wildlife)? The answer is as murky as the blood-soaked waters of The Cove.