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August 20, 2010

Annual Japan Dolphin Drives Imminent

Is there hope on the horizon?

Humane Society International

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    Dolphins should remain in the wild. Kolesnyk Tobias/iStockphoto

by Marcie Berry

Update, August 30, 2010: According to reports, Ito Fishing Cooperative in Futo has announced they will resume a drive hunt of dolphins this season for the first time since 2005. They plan to take 419 animals, including 59 bottlenose dolphins, for sale to aquariums, for “scientific research,” and for human consumption. They have also said they believe it important to teach the skills of the drive hunt to the next generation.

As the summer days continue to pass by, September 1 looms on the horizon: This is the day that the annual dolphin drives will begin once again in Japan. Fishermen are gearing up their boats to participate in this mass slaughter of one of the most recognizable and well-loved marine mammals on Earth. Using motorized vessels to locate a dolphin pod, the fishermen herd the animals toward shore, trapping them in a large net or shallow bay.

Once the dolphins are confined, a select few are chosen to begin careers as performers for captive marine mammal parks and zoos. Soon after, the killing begins and is anything but humane. Lances and knives are used to stab the animals repeatedly until they bleed to death. Destined for slaughter, they are hauled onto boats, some still alive at this point. Although the meat is sold at market, it is the profits earned from selling some of the dolphins into captivity that allows this annual hunt to prosper.

Increased awareness

Despite the popularity of the recent documentary “The Cove,” which has dramatically raised awareness on this issue, the hunt continues. Riding the momentum of “The Cove,” a new mini-series starring Ric O’Barry, "Blood Dolphins," will be airing soon on Animal Planet. All of this has brought the drive hunts into the public eye as never before.

Health risks a concern

The Japanese government is also being reminded once again about the dangers of eating dolphin meat. Numerous scientific studies have shown that dolphin meat is heavily contaminated with PCBs, heavy metals, and other toxins. Dolphin meat exceeds contaminant levels set for human consumption by many governments, including Japan’s. Humane considerations aside, eating this meat is simply not safe.

Dolphins in captivity

International outrage in the early 1980s almost shut down the dolphin drives—until dolphinariums and aquariums began paying many thousands of dollars for live animals, making the hunts profitable once again. It is hard to believe that many of the dolphins people love to visit in dolphinariums in Japan and elsewhere in Asia were witnesses to the murder of their friends and families. The more we learn about these intelligent animals, the more it becomes clear that they simply do not belong in captivity.

Coincidentally, SeaWorld, the largest dolphinarium in the United States, is dealing with its own controversy, as a result of one of its trainers being killed earlier this year by Tilikum, the largest orca ever held in captivity and one who was wild caught in Iceland in 1983. The issue of marine mammals in captivity is receiving ever more public scrutiny as people make the connection between the drive hunts and the “happy” dolphins they see performing in shows.

Let us speak out

In the past, Humane Society International has campaigned against drive fisheries through letters, action alerts, embassy demonstrations, public education, and corporate outreach. Unfortunately, the hunt still takes place, but there is hope. In June 2010 a new Prime Minister was elected in Japan and we now have the chance to make our voices heard once more.

The new Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, began his political career as an environmental campaigner and has a background in activism. With all of the negative publicity surrounding the drive fisheries, perhaps he will use his new position to instigate positive change that reflects the views of the majority of the Japanese people, and the world. Brutal and inhumane activities like dolphin drives clearly have no place in modern society.

Marcie Berry is Research Assistant, Wildlife for HSI.