Taiji's Dirty Little Secret is Out

08/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

There's a seemingly-quaint fishing town nestled into a mountainous coastal spot on Japan's eastern coast that is going to become an international hotspot. The innocuous-seeming village houses a national park, whale museum, Buddhist temples and lots of fisherman. Below the surface of this quiet place is a dirty secret that the fisherman and the Japanese government are trying to keep a secret. Unless they're testing nuclear weapons or building a top secret facility, why would a picturesque nook in a small fishing town off of Japan's eastern coast be so intent on keeping what happens there a secret?

It turns out to be a government supported annual massacre of thousands of dolphins and porpoises. These marine mammals are victims of international trade, economics, global fishing sustainability, world tourism and human health issues. And, as a consumer, you might play a role in this intriguing international story, which is captured in the Oceans 11-esque gripping inspiring documentary, The Cove.

It has taken Flipper's former trainer to expose the world to what is happening in Taiji. Ric O'Barry, the star of the upcoming documentary, The Cove, explains his dramatic transition from being Flipper's trainer to an activist intent on freeing captive dolphins worldwide. The plethora of dolphinariums, swim-with-dolphin programs and aquariums with captive dolphins is personal for Mr. O'Barry who feels that this worldwide phenomenon is largely due to his training of dolphins and making it culturally appropriate. Upon this realization, decades ago, he transformed himself into a unwavering activist globe trotter intent on freeing captive dolphins.

Taiji has become O'Barry's top priority now because of the large number of dolphins rounded up between September and March that are either taken for international captive dolphin programs or slaughtered for their meat. The horrific process involves local fisherman "driving" the dolphins into a cove by banging metal pipes on the sides of their boats. The sound-sensitive animals, frightened and confused, are driven into the what appears to be a pristine cove surrounded by a national park's towering lush mountains. The beautiful scenery belies what will soon befall these animals. The fisherman, along with dolphin trainers, sort through the animals to choose the best ones for captive programs (which fetch tens of thousands of dollars). The less desirable ones are slaughtered for their meat which is sold in Japan (and are only "worth" a tiny fraction of the price of a live one). After the roundup and slaughter, the aqua blue water is transformed into a murky, harrowing, red pool of death.

The story of Taiji, as shown in The Cove, serves as a backdrop for Japan's involvement in the export and trade in wild dolphins. It raises questions about the country's role in the International Whaling Commission which it uses as a bully pulpit to strong-arm less developed countries into supporting it's "scientific" whale hunting agenda. Since the IWC doesn't regulate small cetaceans, such as porpoises and dolphins, the international body has no recourse to take to stop the slaughter in Taiji. The film also highlights about the grave threat to the health of our oceans caused by countries, including Japan and the US, continued overfishing of many species. Finally, Japanese consumers are eating dolphin meat, unknowingly mislabeled as whale meat. The dolphin meat has dangerously high levels of mercury and is unsafe for human consumption.

What happens in Taiji is horrible and gruesome, but what does it have to do with American consumers? A lot. Millions of Americans regularly participate in swim-with-dolphin programs while on vacation abroad or perhaps visit a dolphinarium or an aquarium. If this is you, then there's a good chance that the dolphins you meet were wild animals (and while most dolphins at US aquariums were born in captivity, many wild-caught still survive). It's a cruel, senseless life for highly intelligent wild animals. Maybe you love to eat fish (though don't worry, you can't find mislabeled dolphin meat at your neighborhood grocery store) but don't realize that many species are over-fished and perhaps contain high levels of contaminants like mercury.

The hauntingly beautiful cinematography, a cast of the world's best adventure extremists and the story of Ric O'Barry culminate in an action-packed, edgy documentary that has won numerous awards, including audience award for best documentary at Sundance. After seeing the film, you will be inspired and motivated to take action. There's a lot of simple things you can do that will have a huge impact.

The Cove is an opportunity for the world--our global village linked through Twitter, Facebook and other digital tools--to make changes at the personal, communal and international levels. Using these available online tools will help to build an international movement that includes Japanese, Americans, Europeans and millions of others around the globe, who are all committed to stopping the slaughter in Taiji.

1. Send a letter to President Obama, Vice-President Biden and the Japanese Ambassador to the US. I wasn't kidding when I wrote that this story reaches the highest echelons of our government. To stop what is happening in Taiji requires decisive, swift action at the highest levels of government (the slaughter resumes September 1st).

The Cove shows the power of one person, Ric O'Barry, to bring a harrowing story to the world's attention. Taiji's cove is no longer a secret. It's now up to all of us to spread the word and take action to stop the slaughter.

UPDATE: I originally wrote that "all dolphins at US aquariums, though, are now born in captivity." However, upon further research, I learned that US facilities also do still occasionally import animals that were wild-caught abroad (although not drive-caught animals like in Taiji) and they also import captive-born animals whose parents were recently wild-caught.

Sarah's Social Action Snapshot originally appeared on takepart.com