Taiji is a small town located in the city of Wakayama, Japan, that has approximately 3,428 residents, according to the last census in 2011. The start of September marks the start of the 6-month drive hunts; during this time, a large-scale hunt of dolphins and other small cetaceans takes place. Boats will be sent out in the mornings to find pods of dolphins who will then be driven into The Cove. Once in the cove, they will either be slaughtered for their meat or selected by dolphin trainers for live trade to aquariums, dolphinariums and marine parks. The annual quotas for these hunts can go into the thousands; the 2020/21 quota was 1,749 and the current season quota is 1,849.
CONTENT WARNING: The below article contains images readers may find distressing, depicting slaughtered dolphins.
The History of Dolphin and Whale Hunts
The history of drive hunting is a long and complicated one, rooted in culture and tradition that spans decades in a multitude of different countries. The earliest recorded capture of a Killer Whale for captivity was in November 1961; a female whale was captured in Newport Harbour, California, for Marineland of the Pacific, a now closed oceanarium in Los Angeles. After public concern in 1972, US congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act which protected cetaceans from being killed or captured without specialist permits. There has historically been captures and hunts in Iceland, Faroe Islands, Japan, Kiribati, Peru, the Solomon Islands and Taiwan.
Japan has a long history of whaling, starting in 1612. Whaling in Taiji started in 1675 and was fundamental in helping Japan rapidly expand the industry. This has evolved into the drive hunts that we see today and Taiji is the only known town in Japan where drive hunts still happen on a large scale.
What Drives These Hunts?
According to the Japanese government, the main driving force for continuing the dolphin hunts is to provide meat to the Japanese people, despite only a small number of people actually eating this meat. The Japanese government continue to authorise the permits to keep the dolphin population down as they are regarded as pests and therefore make it harder for fishermen to reach their fishing quotas. However, meat from dolphins captured in the cove has been tested and revealed to have extremely high levels of mercury. Mercury is the second most toxic poison in the world, after plutonium. These high levels of mercury in the meat make it dangerous to consume, and therefore causes significant health implications.
Another driving force for the hunt is the capture of dolphins for live trade for dolphinariums. Bottlenose dolphins are the most sought-after target as they are highly desired by captive facilities, where they have been sold for as much as $152,000 USD each; this is a significantly higher price than a dead dolphin which are usually sold for around $600 USD. For captive facilities, this is significantly cheaper than the cost of an already trained dolphin.
Many dolphins have been purchased and transported all over the world; to places such as China, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, Taiwan, the Philippines and many more. There is also evidence of some dolphins owned by U.S. aquariums, such as SeaWorld, coming from the drive hunts, as they developed a long-standing business relationship with the SeaWorld in Kamogawa who also get their dolphins this way. Though, in 1993, a ruling by the National Marine Fisheries Services(NMFS) banned the live export of dolphins into the US, as US law specifies that captures of marine mammals should be humane.
How Can You Help?
Dolphin Project are an amazing resource to find out more about the hunts and keep updated on the current season. They have been on the ground in Taiji every year since 2003 with an amazing team of cove monitors watching the drives. Since 2012, they have been live streaming the hunts to show what is happening to the wider public, as well as reporting on daily hunting activity, observing captive transfers and monitoring the captive animals’ welfare at the Taiji whale museum and other training sites.
On their website there are many different petitions to sign but the main way to help is to spread awareness and pledge not to buy tickets to dolphin shows. Instead, there are many other ways in which you can watch whales and dolphins more responsibly. If you are looking at going dolphin or whale watching, make sure that the tour operator is promoting the trip as educational and not guaranteeing that you will see anything when you are out. Whales and dolphins should decide when they want to be seen, as they are wild animals; the tour operator should never force an interaction, and should also keep a respectful distance from them. I would also recommend watching the films Blackfish and The Cove. Although they are both heart-breaking to watch, they show the connection between wild captures and the captivity industry.
About the author: Isabelle Eaton is currently studying for her masters degree in Sustainable Development at UWE. She is passionate about all things nature, wildlife and the outdoors. She is the Wildlife and Environment Editor here at Wild Magazine and is working towards a career in conservation so she can make a positive impact on the world.