Is Taiji Slaughter Wiping Out Japan's Bottlenose Dolphins?

03/18/2015 04:23 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2015

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Another season of dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan, has reached its end in February, although some dolphins, notably the pilot whales, will continue to be harpooned offshore through March at least. The gory hunt season, made notoriously famous by the award-winning documentary The Cove, lasts for six months, during which dolphin hunters cruise out of Taiji harbor in boats to herd pods of dolphins into the Cove, where the dolphins are netted off from the ocean and slaughtered in the most inhumane way imaginable.


Photo by Oceanic Preservation Society

What should be setting off the loudest alarm bells is the decline in catch of the bottlenose dolphin in Taiji. The bottlenose dolphin is the most prized dolphin sought for captivity in aquariums around the world. (Flipper in the iconic 1960s television show was a bottlenose dolphin, and Florida coastal populations of bottlenose dolphins for years supplied the circus acts in aquariums in the U.S., until recent years when most are supplied by artificial insemination and breeding of captive bottlenose dolphins.) A bottlenose dolphin killed and butchered for meat will fetch about $500-$600 in Japan markets, whereas a trained, live Taiji bottlenose dolphin can bring in $150,000 or more on the world market for the aquarium trade. Major markets for captives include Japan (with more than 100 dolphin captive facilities, according to our colleagues with the Elsa Nature Conservancy of Japan), China, Russia, and the Middle East.

Last season (2013-2014), Taiji hunters caught 551 bottlenose dolphins, but this season only 108 were caught, a more than 80 percent decline. Fewer of them were killed this season for meat (28) compared to last season (144 killed).

Only 80 dolphins were kept this season for captivity, mostly 41 bottlenose dolphins and 24 spotted dolphins, with a half-dozen Pacific white-sided and Risso's dolphins each, plus two pilot whales. Here again, it is likely that orders for captive dolphins are lower than last season, when 158 dolphins were captured, condemning them to captivity where their health is threatened and their lives shortened.


Image by Helena Gonzalez Martinez

Are bottlenose populations being depleted by the Taiji hunts? Possibly. Bottlenose dolphins are a widespread species around the world, but they don't exist in large dense populations, unlike some other dolphin species. And as the bottlenose species is the prime species used for captivity, the Taiji hunters probably have a major problem if they continue to deplete the local population for meat and captives. This may be why almost half of the bottlenose dolphins were released this season (39) by the hunters, in a pathetic attempt at conservation.

Such releases are highly problematic. These dolphins have been traumatized, being herded into the shallow waters of the Cove, losing major members of their pods (including possibly key matriarchs that lead the younger dolphins and males that protect the pod), and then herded out into the wild ocean. Many do not survive such treatment, which is counter-productive and cruel (there are credible reports and photos from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society of dolphins washing up dead onshore after such a "release" of dolphins).

There may be other reasons for the decline in the dolphin catch in Taiji. We know, for example, that the educational work that Earth Island and other organizations have done in Japan about mercury contamination of dolphin meat has had an effect - we have been told by sources in Taiji that the Taiji dolphin hunters are furious about such educational efforts that have cut into their market for dolphin meat by half.

There is also the question of the weather during Taiji hunts - rain, wind, and waves can obscure dolphin pods from the hunters, and many times during such conditions, which are frequent on the Wakayama Peninsula, the hunters will stay onshore. Even in good weather, the Taiji hunters will sometimes come back to port with no dolphins.

But the downward trend continues. A combination of bad luck with weather, a decline in the market for dolphin meat due to the efforts of Earth Island and other environmental organizations in Japan, and possible declines in local Japanese dolphin populations are adding up to a serious drop in dolphin hunting success and revenue.

The slaughtered dolphins are sold in markets, mostly locally, for meat, although we know the meat is heavily contaminated with mercury and PCBs, often in excess of Japanese and World Health Organization levels thought to be safe, sometimes by orders of magnitude. Yet the meat is sold without a warning label nor has the Japanese government issued any warnings except for the mildest suggestion that pregnant women limit their consumption. The human fetus is the most sensitive to mercury, which destroys nerve cells and is, next to plutonium, the most toxic poison known. Dolphin meat should not be eaten by anyone.

Examining the grim numbers from this season's dolphin kill reveals some new unsettling trends. Japan insists that the dolphin hunts are "traditional," but the drive hunts in Taiji only began in 1969. After four and a half decades of killing local dolphin populations, several facts seem evident.

(Figures cited are from the online database CetaBase , based on observations and counts provided by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's Cove Guardians. These are unofficial numbers, and may vary as the dolphin hunters in Taiji do all that they can to hide the killing of the dolphins from environmentalists' cameras.)

Overall, the trend continues in the decline of dolphin deaths in the Cove. When Earth Island Institute began our Save Japan Dolphins Campaign in 2004, about 1,600 dolphins were killed that year, according to Japanese Fisheries Agency numbers. This past season, only 751 dolphins were killed for meat. In the last season (Sept. 2013 - Feb. 2014), about 834 dolphins were killed.

There is a major disconnect here, as the Taiji quota awarded by the Japan Fisheries Agency to Taiji hunters for this season was a whopping 1,938 dolphins, far exceeding the actual kill. This has been the case for many years.

A good example of the absurdity of such high quotas is the case of two species of dolphins, the false killer whale (a close relative of the orca) and the Pacific white-sided dolphin. No false killer whales were caught this season or last season, and very few Pacific white-sided dolphins were caught each season. Yet, the Japanese government still gives Taiji a quota of 70 false killer whales and 134 Pacific white-sided dolphins to kill each season. Such a quota is obviously meaningless.

It is high time Taiji dolphin hunters put down their harpoons and handspikes permanently and seek another line of work both more sustainable and more acceptable.

For a detailed analysis of the Cove slaughter numbers, see our Save Japan Dolphins Campaign blog.