Japan’s controversial annual dolphin hunt begins

The controversial dolphin hunt in the Japanese city of Taiji is now in its ninth day and fishermen have so far caught at least seven bottlenose dolphins in a hunting season expected to last until March 2022.

The hunt, operated by the Isana Fishermen’s Association, has a catch quota of 1,849 dolphins of nine species that the Japanese government has ordered killed or captured this season. They include bottlenose dolphins, striped dolphins, melon-headed whales, and Risso dolphins.

Some are caught and sold to marine parks and dolphinariums, mainly in Japan and China, and several hundred are slaughtered for meat, according to the Dolphin Project, a California-based advocacy group. (In recent years, hunters have caught hundreds of fewer dolphins than the quota allows).

Activist Ren Yabuki, of the animal welfare organization Life Investigation Agency in Japan, has been in Taiji Bay every day, filming and reporting catch figures on social media in collaboration with the Dolphin Project. Yabuki has done this every season for the past six years.

“When the dolphins and whales are herded into the bay from the shore, it’s like your blood boils and starts flowing backwards,” Yabuki says. “Dolphins and whales, which have done nothing wrong, are suddenly and violently captured. Their families are torn apart. They are caught for the aquarium trade in the presence of [their] family and pod members or killed right in front of their families and siblings. (Read how we know that animals think and feel.)

The hunt has been condemned worldwide since 2009, when the Academy Award-winning documentary The Bay revealed how Taiji fishermen hunt hundreds of dolphins and force them into the bay, where they are captured or slaughtered.

The government of Taiji has not responded to: National Geographic‘s request for comment, but has previously championed hunting in other media as a 400-year-old cultural tradition. (Critics, however, argue that hunting methods — groups of motorized boats that round up entire herds, often for the dolphinarium trade — evolved from what was once a subsistence tradition.)

Eyewitness accounts from Dolphin Project volunteers say that fishermen usually kill the dolphins by inserting them under their blowholes to sever the spinal cord. But it has been noted that the dolphins may not die immediately and some have been seen moving later. Other eyewitnesses have reported that calves, unable to survive on their own, were released back into the ocean after their mothers were killed. (Read about the minke whale that got entangled in the fishing nets off Taiji Bay for 19 days before fishermen tied a rope to its tail and dragged it until it drowned.)

Dolphin meat is still popular in Taiji, but the nationwide demand for dolphin and whale meat in Japan has declined in recent years and many distributors and processors have closed.

A dolphin can sell its meat for $500, but a live bottlenose dolphin for the dolphinarium trade can fetch $8,000 to $12,000, according to the Washington Post.

According to the Dolphin Project, between a hundred and 200 dolphins are caught each year for dolphinariums. Japan, with an estimated 70 dolphinariums, more than any other country, remains the largest market for live dolphins caught in Taiji, said Tim Burns, the Dolphin Project’s Taiji coordinator.

‘A giant dolphin pool’

In 2015, the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA) banned its members from purchasing dolphins from the Taiji hunt, following protests and pressure from the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a global industry association. Some Japanese dolphinariums withdrew from JAZA so that they could continue to buy from Taiji.

After dolphins are herded into the bay, trainers work with fishermen to select individuals for captivity. Fishermen “can ride in a pack of eight Rizzo dolphins, and one could be the perfect young female they need [for training]Brands says. “The rest are slaughtered.”

Burns’ team says it expects many of the dolphins caught this season to be sent to the government whaling museum in Taiji and Moriura Bay, where the government keeps dolphins in sea pens. They keep a hundred to 200 cetaceans between them and are regularly added to the hunts, according to the Japanese times. At the Whale Museum, visitors can purchase whale and dolphin meat from the gift shop to snack on while watching dolphin shows.

The city of Taiji is working to convert Moriura Bay, which is about twice the size of New York’s Yankee Stadium, into a “giant pool with dolphins”. Japanese times reports, but for now it’s holding dolphins in sea pens.

“Taijis have invested heavily in Moriura Bay and in restocking dolphins in its own reserves,” Burns said. As pressure mounts to end the hunt, breeding in the museum and bay is likely to increase, allowing Taiji’s dolphin trading industry to continue.

Representatives of the Taiji Whale Museum did not respond to National Geographic’s request for comment.

A growing national movement

For various cultural and legal reasons, public protest is less common in Japan than in some other countries. Foreigners often protest the hunt with gory and graphic images. Meanwhile, Japanese-led protests, more subdued, are becoming more frequent. This year, several dozen Japanese animal advocates protested in Taiji on the first day of the hunt, reports Japan aheadwith signs with messages like “Let dolphins swim free” and “Love all animals.”

“Since the dolphin hunt and dolphin trade in Taiji is run by Japanese hunters, it is up to the Japanese to take the lead,” Yabuki said. “By documenting the entire hunting process and exposing the reality of this dolphin exploitation and how it relates to aquariums [and] marine parks, people [may] choose not to support such captive dolphin facilities.”

Wildlife Watch is a research reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners that focuses on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories and learn more about the National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com.

Natasha Daly is a staff writer at National Geographic, where she describes how animals and culture intersect. follow her Twitter and Instagram.

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