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Japan’s Dolphin Hunts: Atrocity or Necessity?

Between September and March each year, hundreds of dolphins are hunted in the waters off Taiji, Japan, in the largest dolphin slaughter in the world to date. Western criticism of the dolphin hunts reached a fever pitch last year after the release of the US documentary The Cove, whose makers used remote-controlled helicopters and hidden underwater cameras to record the dolphin hunts.

An isolated town of 3,500 in Wakayama prefecture, Japan, Taiji is regarded as the spiritual home of Japan’s whaling industry. According to the town’s whaling museum, the first hunts took place in the early 1600s, but the industry went into decline after the introduction of a global ban on commercial whaling in 1986.

Taiji’s local fishermen rely on the hunts for their livelihood and have pointed out that dolphins and other small cetaceans are not covered by the whaling moratorium. They view dolphin hunting as well as whaling as a necessity to alleviate the decline in fish stocks.

“Cattle and other animals are killed for meat in other parts of the world everyday. How is hunting dolphins any less humane?” Hideki Nakamura, a former fisherman, asks in an email.

Dolphin meat is not considered a delicacy and often ends up camouflaged as more expensive whale meat in larger cities in Japan. Dolphin contains dangerous levels of mercury and can be toxic if consumed by humans in large amounts. Regular dolphin consumption by pregnant women can cause birth defects and other health issues.

However, it’s not just about the meat. By doing business with the dolphin hunters, the zoo and aquarium industry is helping to maintain the dolphin massacres. “The dolphin captivity industry is a driving force in this slaughter in Japan and the Solomon Islands. The aquarium trade actually is on site to buy the best-looking dolphins for swim programs, amusement parks, and zoos and other types of circuses,” says Mark Berman, associate director of SaveJapanDolphins.org, a project of the Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project.

A live dolphin sold to a dolphinarium brings in a much higher profit than a dolphin sold as meat. The dolphin hunts continue in large part because members of the international dolphin display industry reward the fishermen with thousands of dollars for animals that are deemed suitable for commercial exploitation in captivity. The process of selecting dolphins for captivity or slaughter goes on for hours, during which time some dolphins die from shock, injuries or exhaustion. Dolphins not selected are slaughtered.

“If the aquarium industry would stop this disgusting trade, then the incentive to capture and kill dolphins would end,” says Berman.

How can an ethical traveler best help? One key step to take as consumers is to avoid visiting or supporting any establishment that uses captive or semi-captive dolphins. This includes dolphin swim programs in places such as Mexico, the Bahamas, and Roatan, Honduras. “The claim of eco-tourism by these places is totally fraud,” says Berman.

Conservationists and leaders of Taiji seen in The Cove met in Japan recently to try to come to an agreement on the dolphin hunt issue. After heated discussion, there is no resolution in sight.

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