Who is killing the dolphins in Japan?

One often encounters this statement: “The Japanese are killing the whales and dolphins!” But it is not the Japanese people who are doing this. The slaughter of dolphins in the small fishing village of Taiji, for example, is carried out by about 26 fishermen. They kill the dolphins with a permit from their government. The majority of people in Japan are totally unaware of this annual government-sanctioned dolphin blood bath.

What species do they kill and how many? 

The Japan government Fisheries Agency issues 23,000 permits to kill dolphins, porpoises and other small whales annually throughout Japan. The numbers killed in Japan varies from year to year. (In 2007, for example, 13,107 dolphins and small whales were reported killed in Japan waters. These numbers do not include the large whales killed by Japan under so-called “scientific” whaling permits in the North Pacific and Antarctic Oceans.) The number of dolphins killed has been decreasing in part due to successful efforts by the Save Japan Dolphins Campaign and other organizations to reduce sales of dolphin and whale meat in Japanese markets. The other reason the kill rate is going down is that the Japanese fishermen are killing off dolphins, and there are simply not as many left to kill. About 1,200 to 1,800 of these are killed in the so-called dolphin drive hunt in Taiji, also known as “drive fishery.” The rest are killed with hand-held harpoons from small boats at sea.

The targeted dolphin species include:

Striped dolphins

Bottlenose dolphins

Pantropical spotted dolphins

Risso’s dolphins

Pilot whales

Rough-toothed dolphins

Pseudo orcas

Pacific White-sided dolphins

Baird’s beaked whales

Dall’s porpoises 

Why is it called “drive fishery”?

The term “drive fishery” derives from the method of driving, or herding, dolphins into a designated killing cove or harbor. We avoid the term “drive fishery,” as it leads many to believe that we are talking about fish rather than large marine mammals. Therefore, we call it “dolphin drive hunt.” The annual dolphin drive hunt is part of coastal whaling.

When does the dolphin drive hunt take place? 

For several years, the dolphin drive hunt in Taiji has taken place from October 1st through March. In recent years, however, the dolphin hunters in Taiji have started the dolphin-killing season early, on September 1st.

How do they capture the dolphins? 

The fishermen of Taiji have developed a highly effective method of locating, capturing and eradicating dolphins, sometimes as many as one hundred or more in a single day. Before sunrise, about 26 fishermen board their 13 motorized boats and head out to deep water where the dolphins migrate. The dolphins have been using these migratory paths for thousands, perhaps millions, of years, and the hunters know exactly where to find them. When a school of dolphins swims by, the fishermen position their boats one behind the other, perfectly evenly spaced. Then they lower several stainless steel poles into the water, one on each side of each boat. The poles are flared out at the bottom much like a bell, which amplifies the sound produced when the hunters repeatedly hit the poles with hammers. The noise creates a wall of sound underwater, and the dolphins suddenly find themselves trapped between this wall of sound and the shoreline. Trying to get away from the sound, the dolphins swim in the opposite direction, toward the shore. The dolphins’ panic and loss of navigational sense enable the fishermen to drive them into a small, hidden cove near Taiji harbor. The fishermen seal the mouth of the cove with several nets, and the dolphins are trapped. <View an animated demonstration of the dolphin drive hunt here.>?

Why do the fishermen leave the dolphins in the cove overnight before they kill them?

After the dolphin hunters have sealed the killing cove with large nets, they leave the dolphins in the cove, returning the next day at sunrise to kill them. Why don’t they kill them right away? One theory is that the dolphin meat tastes better if the dolphins are left overnight so that they calm down after the chase. But this is hard to believe. We have spent hours observing schools of dolphins after they were chased into the killing cove. At no point do they appear to be “relaxed.” On the contrary, they spend the entire time hyperventilating, circling their confinement and looking for a way out. We think there are two reasons that the fishermen don’t kill the dolphins right away: The hunt often goes on for eight or nine hours, sometimes even longer, with the dolphins escaping the boats, and the fishermen chasing them down again. By the time the fishermen have chased the dolphins into the killing cove and sealed their fate with nets, they just want to go home. It’s much more convenient for them to rest up and return to the cove the next morning to kill and butcher the dolphins. Another good reason for the fishermen to carry out the bloodbath in the early morning hours is that the killing cove turns a bright red with blood during the slaughter. It takes a while for all the blood to wash out to sea. In the afternoon, many Japanese tourists come to the cove to enjoy the beautiful view, unaware that this is where thousands of dolphins are killed in an unimaginably horrific blood bath. The fishermen depend on a high level of secrecy to continue the dolphin hunt. They don’t want the Japanese people to know about it, and by killing the dolphins at sunrise, they make sure there is no one to witness it.

In recent years, as our presence in Taiji at the cove has become better known and more monitors show up to protest, fishermen are now often killing the dolphins immediately, rather than leaving them overnight.

How do they kill the dolphins? 

Just before sunrise, the fishermen herd the trapped dolphins into shallow water, close to the rocky beach. Here, they kill the dolphins with long, sharp spears. Often times, they stab the dolphins with sharp fishermen’s hooks and haul the still living dolphins onto their boats. The cruelty is enormous. The dolphins thrash about in their own blood, and the air fills with their screams. This killing, called “humane” by government bureaucrats, has been documented by the Academy Award winning documentary, The Cove.

Why do they kill the dolphins? 

Officially, the main purpose of the dolphin hunt is to provide dolphin meat to the Japanese people. But only a small minority of people in Japan actually eats the meat. During our many campaigns in Japan, we even got the impression that dolphin meat is considered “trashy,” unlike the much more expensive whale meat. DNA tests on meat labeled “whale meat” in Japanese markets have revealed the meat is in fact falsely labeled dolphin meat.

There is another essential, and rather shocking, aspect to the dolphin hunt: During a meeting with the Taiji fishermen in January 2004, the fishermen told us that they do not only hunt dolphins for their meat or for sale to the dolphinarium industry. In their own words, they kill the dolphins “as a form of pest control.” The dolphins, from the fishermen’s perspective, eat too much fish, and the fishermen are simply killing the competition. This is the first time ever that Japanese dolphin hunters have openly admitted to executing pest control on dolphins. Over-fishing of the oceans is a tremendous problem on a global level, and the Japanese fishermen, supported by their government, are wrongly pointing at the dolphins as the reason for this depletion. The Japanese government is making the same false argument in front of the International Whaling Commission that whales eat fish and therefore need to be controlled by killing. The desire to keep the dolphin population down is a major reason why the Japanese government is so keen on issuing permits for the hunts. It is not really about providing meat for the Japanese people. It is not really about maintaining what the fishermen repeatedly refer to as their “tradition or “culture.” It is about eradicating as many dolphins as possible in order to make the oceans’ fish available to themselves.

In addition, the powerful Japan Fisheries Agency promotes the killing of dolphins and whales as part of Japan’s “food culture”, despite the fact that few Japanese are interested in eating whale and dolphin meat anymore, and huge surpluses are kept in refrigerated warehouses. The Agency sees their role as protecting the Japanese people from the consequences of overfishing worldwide – if environmentalists shut down whaling and dolphin killing, then other Japanese fishing methods and species will be attacked. The whaling staff of the Japan Fisheries Agency has an additional very personal incentive: sale of whale meat and government subsidies to protect whaling pays for their salaries. If whaling and dolphin killing end, these bureaucrats will be out of a job.

Why don’t the dolphins jump the nets?

We are asked this many times, and understandably so. When standing at the mouth of the killing cove in Taiji, we have often looked down at a school of dolphins trapped in the killing cove. From above, it’s obvious that all the dolphins have to do is jump the nets, and they would be out of harm’s way. But the dolphins don’t have this advantage of seeing everything from above. They don’t know what’s on the other side of the nets. To us, a jump would be a leap into safety. To them, it’s a leap into the unknown. It’s also important to keep in mind that nets and other artificial boundaries are foreign objects to wild dolphins. Living in a three-dimensional world, the only boundaries they know are the shoreline and the ocean’s surface. These are a natural boundaries that dolphins understand. A net, on the other hand, is completely unfamiliar to them. They are probably afraid of this strange phenomenon and therefore stay away from it. Dolphins in captivity have to be trained to jump over things – it is not a natural behavior.

Have you ever seen dolphins escape after they were chased into the killing cove?

Yes, a few times. Once, a young pilot whale, no more than a year old, swam across the net in a place where it had been placed so low that its upper edge touched the surface of the water. The pilot whale managed to do the same with the second net, and for a little while was free to swim away. A large pilot whale immediately joined the young calf. Although they could have easily fled, the pilot whales remained close to their still trapped pod members. It was a dolphin trainer who alerted the fishermen that two pilot whales had escaped. Aided by the trainer, the fishermen brought their boats around and chased the pilot whales back into the killing cove. The entire school of pilot whales was killed and butchered the next morning.

Why do members of the dolphinarium industry take advantage of the hunt?

We have been reporting from Taiji regularly since 2003, and the most shocking aspect of the dolphin drive hunt is the active role that some dolphinariums play in sustaining the hunt. Dolphinariums are always looking for ways to obtain more dolphins. Many times, the fishermen of Taiji will drive a large school of bottlenose dolphins into the killing cove, and dolphin trainers and marine mammal veterinarians flock to the scene to seek out the best-looking dolphins for their display facilities. By doing business with the dolphin killers, they are helping to maintain the dolphin drive hunts. A live dolphin sold to a dolphinarium brings in a much higher profit than does a dead dolphin sold as meat, which brings in about $600. In Taiji, live bottlenose dolphins have been sold for as much as $300,000 each. The dolphin massacres in Japan will likely continue for as long as 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. Dolphinariums that work together with the Japanese dolphin killers are a major reason that the dolphin massacres are still going on.

But are dolphinariums not saving the selected dolphins from slaughter? 

Dolphinariums that purchase dolphins from the dolphin killers will tell you they are “saving” the dolphins from slaughter. We view this as nothing but propaganda, aimed at concealing the fact that they are fuelling the dolphin hunt by making it tremendously profitable. Working side by side, dolphin trainers and fishermen force the dolphins into shallow water, haul the dolphins ashore and line them up. The trainers then inspect the dolphins one by one, choosing only the ones that can be used in dolphin shows and captive dolphin swim programs. They are typically looking for young, unblemished dolphins. They “save” only the ones that can be commercially exploited in the display industry. The ones that are too old, too young, have the wrong gender or have too many blemishes are not worth “saving” to them, so they let the fishermen kill them.

We have seen dolphin trainers assist the fishermen in bringing the rejects to the killing cove to have their throats slit. They don’t even bother to inspect the very young babies, knowing that they can’t be used in dolphin shows. Using ropes and physical force, dolphin trainers separate the babies from their mothers. They haul the mothers close to the rocky beach to measure and inspect them. The babies cry out, but they are doomed. The dolphin trainers are not going to help them. If these dolphin trainers and marine mammal veterinarians were into “saving” dolphins, they would be there with a protest sign and video cameras, just like we are. Instead, they take advantage of the dolphin slaughter to nourish the huge profits made from captive dolphins.

The grueling selection process drags on for several hours, and some dolphins die from either shock, injuries or exhaustion during this time. Some make frantic attempts at staying at the surface of the water, but their pectoral fins have been dislocated or broken. An injured dolphin is worth nothing to the aquarium industry, and the dolphin trainers simply haul the dying dolphins back into the water and dump them, showing no emotion whatsoever.

Is it true that you have seen dolphin trainers actually assisting in killing dolphins?

Yes. Several times, we have seen dolphin trainers and dolphin killers in the same boat, laughing and joking around after a large school of dolphins had just been killed. We have seen members of the international aquarium and zoo industry get in the water with the dolphin killers, tying ropes around the dolphins’ tail flukes so that the fishermen could tie the dolphins to their boats. Often times, the dolphins are so exhausted at this point, they can’t even stay afloat. Some have large amounts of blood coming out of their blowholes. The dolphin trainers don’t seem to care. The fishermen haul the dolphins to the killing cove, with the dolphins’ blowholes underwater. Dolphin trainers have tormented the dolphins for hours. Some are in shock. Others are seriously injured, and they can’t breathe. Now, they are going to be killed and slaughtered. Not even pregnant females or young calves will be spared. But the dolphin trainers, who claim to “love” dolphins, don’t try to save any of them. It is the cruelest scene we have ever witnessed.

What’s wrong with eating dolphin meat?

Cruelty issues set aside, dolphin meat from drive hunts in Taiji, Wakayama prefecture, proved to be highly contaminated with toxic chemicals such as mercury, methyl mercury and PCBs. Repeated chemical analyses have shown that the level of mercury in dolphin meat is much higher than the maximum allowable level set by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare of Japan and the World Health Organization. The contamination of dolphin meat by mercury in Japan has been documented time and time again, by both nongovernmental organizations and by Japanese scientists. There is worldwide concern that mercury accumulated in the human body poses a serious health risk, especially to pregnant women and children. The contaminated dolphin meat does not have a warning label.

Where else in the world are dolphins being slaughtered?

The horrendous dolphin drive hunts we see in Taiji have been repeated in the Faroe Islands in the Atlantic Ocean and in the Solomon Islands. The Faroe Islanders hunt pilot whales annually and have so far resisted calls to end the slaughter, with the whale kill varying year to year from a few hundred to a thousand or more. In the Solomon Islands, in March 2010, Earth Island, after several years of negotiations, reached agreement with several coastal communities to end the killing of about 2,000 dolphins annually. In return, Earth Island is helping the islanders develop alternative fisheries, energy, and clean water supplies to improve their lives. Dolphin drive hunts in the Japanese communities of Futo and Iki Island ended in recent years, but many fishermen still hunt thousands of Dall’s porpoises with harpoons in the nearshore waters of northern Japan.

In Latin America, there are reports of dolphins being killed for meat and for bait for fish. Dolphins and other whales and marine mammals are also killed for subsistence purposes in Greenland, Alaska and Siberia, although some of these hunts are controversial and certainly still cruel. Of course, Iceland, Japan, and Norway continue to kill large whales in defiance of the international moratorium on commercial whaling approved overwhelmingly by the International Whaling Commission in 1982, which went into effect in the 1986-87 season.

There are serious threats to dolphins around the world from entanglement in fishing nets and gear and from pollution problems. Japan and other nations should join in seeking ways to protect dolphins and other marine mammals, and work to clean up the oceans, rather than cling to unpopular, dying hunts that serve no nutritional purpose anymore.

As long as cows and pigs continue to be mistreated in the Western world, what right to we have to criticize the dolphin hunt?

Good question. Cows, pigs and other domesticated animals are also being consumed in great numbers in Japan. If the meat of these animals was contaminated with mercury, the Japanese people and the Western world would stop eating it immediately. The inhumane treatment of domesticated animals in Western slaughterhouses presents yet another pressing animal welfare issue. Our Campaign coordinates with a number of organizations that work on several animal welfare and environmental issues. Among them are the Korean dog trade, stopping the use of elephants in the circus industry and abolishing factory farming, just to name a few issues. But you cannot be effective if you work on all animal issues at the same time. Our Campaign, therefore, focuses on one issue, which is that of stopping the largest slaughter of dolphins in the world. That is why we are making so much progress, through our focus.

There is another aspect to this question: Simply because animals are mistreated in the Western world, does that mean that a Westerner who cares about animal welfare should overlook animal welfare issues abroad? Of course not. If an animal welfare organization from Japan or any other country came to the United States to document and expose the cruelty that goes in our slaughterhouses, we would welcome them with open arms and help them achieve their goals. Animals don’t carry passports. They are not nationalistic, and our work to save them shouldn’t be, either.

There is of course a conservation element to our work as well. While none of the dolphin species being killed in Japan’s waters are currently endangered worldwide, local extinction of populations of these dolphins is quite possible, likely causing harm to the whole local ecosystem.

One might also simply say: Two wrongs don’t make a right.

What right do you as Westerners have to tell the Japanese what to do? 

We usually receive this question from the fishermen who make a living hunting dolphins. Government officials in Japan are trying to turn the dolphin slaughter issue into one of cultural imperialism. But we are not telling the Japanese people what to do.

On the contrary, we are fighting for their constitutional right to know the facts about an issue that the fishermen and their government are systematically hiding from them. Most people in Japan have no idea that the dolphin slaughter is going on. And they have no idea that the dolphin meat that is served to their children in their schools’ lunch programs is poisoned with mercury. The fishermen once told us that the public has no right to know about it. We say they have every right to know about it. We think the Japanese people are being exploited by the fishermen and their government in their self-serving quest to turn the dolphin drive hunt into an issue of “food culture” when, in realty, it’s about something entirely different: pest control.

It is the fishermen and their government that are telling the Japanese people what to do and think. They are the ones who decide what the public can and cannot know about. Many Westerners wrongly blame an entire Japanese nation for something they know nothing about and are not guilty of. The Japanese people are entitled to at least know why the rest of the world is so upset with them. Article 21 of the Japanese Constitution guarantees them that right.

More importantly, they have a right to make up their own minds regarding their food culture, rather than have their government and some few fishermen dictate to them what their “culture” should be.