It’s 2017, but humanity has decided that it’s still OK with some of the most disgusting animal cruelty on the planet: The dolphin hunting season in the southern Japanese town of Taiji is in full swing. The hunt, which takes place every year from September to March, involves fishermen corralling dolphins into a secluded cove, where they’re slaughtered or captured to be sold to aquariums worldwide. September 3rd marked the first successful drive of the season, with 44 pilot whales shepherded into the cove. To date, four dolphins have been captured and 27 killed.

“The fishermen drive the dolphins into the cove from international waters, sometimes the chase takes 10-12 hours, and that entire time the dolphins are running for their lives,” explained Ric O’Barry, the animal rights activist who first brought global attention to the Taiji dolphin hunt with his 2009 documentary The Cove. “And sometimes it takes the fishermen a week to kill all the dolphins in the cove, and the dolphins haven’t eaten in all that time…it’s a long, long extremely cruel process.”

Since 2000, over 20,000 cetaceans have been captured or killed in Taiji. The quota for the 2017/2018 season is set at 1,940.

A pod of pilot whales trapped in the infamous cove during the first hunt of the season, Taiji, Japan, September 2017. Photo credit: the Dolphin Project

The Taiji hunt is among the world’s largest dolphin hunts, both in terms of raw number of dolphins killed and the number of species targeted (the 2017/2018 hunt provides quotas for nine species of cetaceans). But before the release of The Cove, few people knew anything about this small town. Brutal imagery from the film, coupled with the controversial nature of killing intelligent cetaceans, drew immediate global condemnation. Conservationists and politicians in the west tried to mobilize against the hunt, but cetaceans aren’t protected by the International Whaling Commission, so there wasn’t any legal action that could be taken to stop the Taiji hunts.

Still, O’Barry believes that the best bet to stopping these hunts is to keep them in the limelight. His organization, the Dolphin Project, isn’t the only group trying to keep global attention on the issue: Over the years, activists at groups such as Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace have launched campaigns against the Taiji Hunt, and politicians and celebrities have been recruited to make catchy, sharable videos to raise awareness.

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Mounting international pressure has led to some successes. In 2014, O’Barry convinced The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums to change their policy on the capture of cetaceans: WAZA member aquariums, including the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums, are no longer allowed to buy dolphins from Taiji or any other drive hunt. But despite recent bans, there remains a lucrative market for captured dolphins, which typically fetch between $40,000 - $80,000.

A bottlenose dolphin capture in Taiji, in December of 2015. Photo credit: the Dolphin Project

Jennifer Lonsdale, co-founder of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), explained that either by ignoring the ban put in place by WAZA, or simply forgoing their membership, dolphinariums across the world still purchase Taiji dolphins. According to a 2013 report put out by the EIA, China has become a major purchaser of Taiji’s dolphins, buying almost 250 animals from 2002-2012. Last year alone, 232 dolphins were taken into captivity in Taiji.

While none of the species targeted by the Taiji hunt are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, three—short-finned pilot whales, pacific bottlenose dolphins and false killer whales—are listed as data deficit, which means we’re not sure how well they’re doing. A 2013 report from the EIA raised concerns about the hunt’s sustainability, arguing that Japan’s method for setting their catch quotas relied largely on decades-old research. The report went on the state that “the apparent absence of both up-to-date information on the status of populations and a scientifically rigorous method for setting catch limits displays a lack of responsibility by the Government to ensure the sustainability of small cetacean populations in Japanese waters.”

For its part, the Wakayama Prefecture, which is the provincial governing body that oversees Taiji, has opposed the view that the hunts are unsustainable. In an undated press release, the Wakayama Prefecture stated that the Japanese government “carries out scientific research, and sets quotas every year by species, limiting the quotas to only those stocks where populations are judged sufficient.” We reached out to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Japan for more information on the methodology used to calculate the annual cetacean quotas, but as of the publishing have not heard back.

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Pilot whales huddle together after two nights of being held in the cove, September, 2017. Photo credit: The Dolphin Project

Cultural Tradition

The 3,500-strong town of Taiji has defended the dolphin hunts, claiming that fishing and whaling have long been a source of livelihood and cultural identity. Katsutoshi Mihara, the former 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 Japanese word for whale hunting encompasses dolphin hunting). In 2015, the town’s mayor, Kazutaka Sangen, said that international criticism wouldn’t stop their whaling practice. “We are hunting under the permission of the Japanese government...we will not quit,” he told the Associated Press.

While there’s little doubt that this coastal region has long relied on fishing and whaling as a source of livelihood, many conservationists have questioned whether the large-scale dolphin hunts should be considered part of this cultural heritage. “Taiji’s history with whaling goes back 400 years, but...the targets tended to be large humpback whales, not dolphins,” explained Mark Palmer, Associate Director at the International Marine Mammal Project, in an email to Project Earth. In 2014, a former Taiji dolphin hunter came forward to express a similar view, explaining that in the 1960's, fishermen from the coastal town of Futo, near Tokyo, taught the Taiji fishermen how to shepherd dolphins back to shore for capture. Sakae Hemmi of the Japan-based group ELSA Nature Conservancy has raised many of the same points, arguing that the Taiji dolphin hunt is a relatively recent phenomena that started in the mid 1960s because of the increased demand for entertainment dolphins.

O’Barry, for his part, thinks that even if the people of Taiji have been practicing dolphin hunting for hundreds of years, they should still stop in the 21st century: “It used to be our tradition to own slaves, it doesn’t mean to do it still today. Hiding behind this tradition and culture is a lot of nonsense.”

Toxic Meat: Mercury and PCB

Dolphin and whale meat for sale in a Taiji market, June 2015. Photo credit: the Dolphin Project.

While the Dolphin Project and other animal rights continue to mount pressure against the hunts on ethical grounds, there’s also a growing public health concern related to the sale and consumption of dolphin meat. Studies conducted by the EIA as well as testing sponsored by members of the Taiji town council have found that the cetacean meat contains alarming levels of toxins, including PCBs and mercury. The list of potential health hazards linked to these toxins include cancer, infertility, and suppression of the immune system.

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Armed with the toxic test results, the EIA successfully convinced thousands of Japanese stores to remove whale and dolphin meat from their shelves. However, according to O’Barry, dolphin meat is still sold throughout the town of Taiji, and Lonsdale expressed that there are still many places in Japan where this potentially toxic meat is still sold.

The dolphins of Taiji aren’t the only large marine animals that have unsafe levels of contamination. A study published in the journal Nature in 2016 analyzed the blubber of over 1,000 European dolphins and killer whales for traces of PCBs. The report found that PCB contamination in these animals “greatly exceed concentrations at which severe toxic effects are known to occur,” and that “despite regulations and mitigation measures to reduce PCB pollution, their biomagnification in marine food webs continues to cause severe impacts among cetacean top predators in European seas.”

Ric O’Barry with one of the dolphins that played Flipper, in the 1960's. Photo credit: the Dolphin Project

O’Barry, who is almost 80, first became familiar with cetaceans while working as the original trainer for the Flipper TV series. But in the late 1960s, after one of his dolphins died in his arms, he realized how unnatural it was for these animals to be in captivity and had a complete change of course. He tried to free a number of captive dolphins, leading to the first of his many arrests. The mission of his organization, the Dolphin Project, is to free captive cetaceans across the world and stop all dolphin hunts.

He’s committed to seeing the fight against the Taiji dolphin through to the finish, and sees an opportunity in the upcoming 2020 Winter Olympics, which will be held in Japan. “Our work is really about keeping Taiji in the news, keeping the issue alive so that enough people rise against it,” he explained. “And maybe the international spotlight from the Olympics will encourage Japan and the Japanese people to take action.” He believes that it will be a combination of factors—bad press, international pressure and the realities of mercury and PCB poisoning—that will ultimately do in the dolphin hunts.

“We won’t stop until the hunts stop” said O’Barry.