AP

Conservationists can breathe a sigh of relief: the hunting season in the southwestern Japanese town of Taiji has ended for the year. Since the year 2000, over 20,000 dolphins and whales have been captured or killed in the Taiji hunt and the kill quota for the 2017 hunt was set at 1,820 dolphins. As of March 1, the final casualty tally included 569 dolphins killed and 235 captured.

The Taiji dolphin hunt garnered global condemnation in 2009, when it was exposed in the Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove. The documentary shows how fishermen target about 1,000 dolphins every year, selling them to marine parks or killing them for meat. Since then, the brutality of the hunt has drawn continuous media attention, with conservation groups protesting and monitoring the hunt, and celebrities, conservationists and even politicians condemning the annual slaughter. In 2014, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan at the time, Caroline Kennedy, tweeted against the hunt: “Deeply concerned by inhumaneness of drive hunt dolphin killing. USG opposes drive hunt fisheries.” And in 2015, The Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums banned its members from buying or selling dolphins captured in the Taiji hunts.

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Still, the small town of Taiji with about 3,500 residents, has long relied on fishing as a source of livelihood, and they don’t seem likely to change their habits because of Western outrage. Katsutoshi Mihara, chairman of Taiji's town council, defended the hunt in a 2008 New York Times article, explaining "we are a whaling community, and we don't want to lose that…here, all boys grew up dreaming of hunting whales." The town’s mayor, Kazutaka Sangen, similarly defended the hunt, telling the Associated Press in 2010: "We are hunting under the permission of the Japanese government and prefecture, and so we will continue to protect our fishermen and the methods. We will not quit." He went on to explain “we will pass down the history of our ancestors to the next generation, preserve it. We have a strong sense of pride about this…so we are not going to change our plans for the town based on the criticism of foreigners.”

During the hunt, which takes place annually from September through March or April, dolphins are corralled by fishermen into a secluded cove, where they are slaughtered or captured. The hunt becomes so intense that the surrounding waters turn red with blood. The 2016/2017 hunt proceeded largely as planned.

September 9, 2016, marked the first kills of the season, with the capture of 19 Risso’s dolphins; 15 of the dolphins were killed, with four juveniles being released back into the ocean. In response to their capture, Ric O'Barry, the founder of the Dolphin Project, wrote “the senseless slaughter of the adult dolphins, while forcing the young to fend for themselves in the open sea, should serve as a call to action for everyone." The response from the fishermen was quite different: “We finally caught them. I’m relieved,” Yoshifumi Kai, a senior official of the local fisheries association, told Kyodo News.

In early January, the fishermen had their biggest payday; corralling a pod of 250 bottlenose dolphins into the secluded cove. Over the course of five days, 100 dolphins were taken captive, four died in the cove, and about 150 were released back into the ocean. While the number of dolphins killed far exceeds the number captured, live dolphins account for the majority of the income from the drive hunt; according to official trade figures a dolphin sold for meat brings in a few hundred dollars, while a dolphin with some training can be sold for about $50,000 abroad.

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In an interview with the New Scientist in 2013, Diana Reiss, a Hunter College psychology professor who advised The Cove, explained the issue at the root of the dolphin hunt: “The killing of dolphins is indefensible given our scientific knowledge of dolphins, which has demonstrated their sophisticated cognitive abilities including self and social awareness.” Dolphins have some of the most complex social systems aside from our own; they have individual names, and are constantly interacting with all the members of their population. What does it say about humanity if we are openly killing one of the most intelligent animals on the planet?”

The Dolphin Project is already planning its campaign against the 2017/18 Taiji hunt, which is scheduled to start in September.