One of the most infamous dolphin hunting season has begun on the small coastal town of Taiji, in southwestern Japan. Hundreds of dolphins are herded into a small cove by fishermen on boats and then slaughtered for meat or captured to be sold to aquariums and marine parks around the world. These annual hunts last for six months, from the beginning of September through the end of February, during which close to two thousand dolphins are killed.
The hunt takes place early morning, usually before sunrise. A small group of fishermen get into a dozen motorized boats and head towards the region where dolphins are known to migrate. Once a pod of dolphin is found, the fishermen lower several stainless steel poles into the water and strike them with mallets. The noise disrupts the dolphin's sonar throwing off their navigation and causing them to panic. This enables the fishermen to drive the panicked dolphins towards the bay which leads to a sheltered cove. Once inside, the mouth of the cove is sealed with nets trapping the dolphins inside.
Photo credit: Japan Times
At this point, the dolphins are too agitated to hunt. So the fishermen leave them to cool off for the night. The next morning, the fishermen enter the bay in small boats, and kill the dolphins one at a time. In the past, the fishermen used to stab the dolphins with sharp hooks and harpoons and bleed them to death turning the waters of the cove red with blood. Protests and condemnation against this practice has forced the fishermen to adopt a different killing technique. Nowadays, the dolphins are killed by driving a long metal rod into the cervical region of the dolphin, severing its brainstem, which supposedly kills them within seconds. In realty, the dolphins thrash about in agonizing pain for several minutes. To prevent spilling blood into the cove and turning it red, which would look really bad and inhumane, the fishermen push wooden corks into the wounds.
Aside from the physical pain, the dolphins undergo extreme psychological distress. The hunters would often release the smaller and younger dolphins and kill only the larger adults as they provided more meat. The released animals are traumatized and stressed by the hunts and rarely survive for long without the support of their pod. A pod is not just a random collection of dolphins, but is largely built on dolphin families with very close relations. When dolphins within a pod die, members of the pod exhibit signs of grieving and distress just like humans do.
Photo credit: Nat Geo
The gruesome hunting was secretly filmed by National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos in 2009 for the Academy Award-winning documentary “The Cove”. Since the release of the documentary, the hunt has created an outrage across the world. Millions of people, animal activists and organizations have demanded that the hunting be stopped. But this isn’t going to happen, because it’s a multi-million-dollar industry and is supported by the Japanese government.
The government issues permits to hunt dolphins, whales and other marine animals. About 1,800 permits for dolphin are issued per year. Along with porpoises and other small whales, the total number of permits issued for a single hunting season exceeds well over 16,000. This is a significant drop from 23,000 permits that were annually issued at the time the documentary was made.
The fall in demand for dolphin meat is largely due to efforts from non-profit organizations and activists who have been educating the Japanese people about the dangers of eating mercury-contaminated dolphin meat. In 2015, the World Association of Zoos an Aquariums (WAZA) also banned the buying and selling of dolphins from the controversial hunt, after protests and pressure from global organizations. But there are still plenty of marine parks that do not belong to WAZA and are ready to buy dolphins from Taiji.
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