Taiji: kujira to tomo ni ikiru machi


 17th June 2014

(c) Leah Newey

Photographs courtesy of Leah Newey


Part 1: The Case


The small town of Taiji, population of approximately 3500, is often considered to be the spiritual home of Japan’s multi-million dollar whaling industry. However, between the months of September and March, Taiji, in Wakayama Prefecture, becomes home to the world’s largest dolphin slaughter. Hundreds of dolphins are hunted, herded, trapped, killed and sold here each year. The Cove, a 2010 Academy Award winning documentary exposes the annual dolphin hunt, and depicts how dolphins are herded, trapped by nets, and selected for transfer to dolphinariums, while the remainder are slaughtered for meat. It is an exposé of the cruel treatment of an intelligent ocean-living mammal. While the footage taken remains the undoubted truth of the actions which occur, it should also be noted that all convincing argument maintains an aspect of partisan truth.This paper takes the argument not simply from the standpoint of issues relating to animal rights and welfare but rather in concert with aspects of human rights, health implications, and cultural tradition, to attempt to shed light over the ethical dilemma that exists in Taiji.


Case overview

“In 59 countries around the world, there are well over 2,000 dolphins held in unsuitably small tanks, a number of which have been captured from the wild from the now infamous Japanese coastal town of Taiji.” (Earth Race Conservation, June 2012 cited Plummer 2013)

Almost all Western orientated news articles in relation to the situation at Taiji have one thing in common, that they are sensationalized. Although the image they depict is a true to life representation, the emotive language that often accompanies these reports makes it more difficult for the reader to discern any level of subjectivity or bias offered by the reporter. This often leads to a predisposed tainting of the case presented.

In Taiji, fishermen claim a reliance on the hunting of dolphins and other small cetaceans for income, evidencing that these species are not covered by the whaling moratorium. Additionally they argue the necessity of these actions as a means to alleviate the diminishing fish stocks, an argument which Reiss (2007) claims remains unsupported. Supported by the government, who’s spokesman defended the hunt as being carried out in accordance with the law, they also claim that “the hunt is part of their tradition and call foreign critics who eat other kinds of meat hypocritical” (Japan Times 2014). Dolphin meat however, is not regarded a delicacy in other areas of the country and is frequently masqueraded as similar, more expensive whale meat. McCurry (2008) relates that, dolphin meat contains hazardous levels of mercury, which when consumed in quantity should be regarded as toxic (also EIA 2013). Additionally, he notes, regular dolphin consumption by pregnant women can cause birth defects and other health issues.

Selection processes, for both dolphins suitable for sale to the captive display industry, and those marked slaughter lasts many hours up to days for each pod herded into the cove. During this time numerous dolphins die from shock, related injuries or exhaustion (Earth Island Institute 2014).The meat however is a single aspect, the entire local fishing industry isn’t based on dolphin slaughter.

According to The History of Taiji, edited and published by Taiji town in 1979, the first recorded dolphin drive was in 1933, with subsequent hunts occurring in 1936 and 1944. It was not until 1969 that dolphin drives have been conducted on a large scale. The history of the dolphin drives spans not so-called 400 years, but a mere 45. Furthermore, in 1969, the main goal of the dolphin drive was to capture pilot whales as prized showpieces for the Taiji Whale Museum. In other words, the dolphin drive was purely for profit, having nothing to do with cultural history (Hemmi et al. 2014).

Live dolphins procured for a dolphinarium provide much greater profits than for the sale of meat.“A dead dolphin… is worth about $US500 in meat. A wild dolphin … to keep in an aquarium alive can be worth over $US130,000.” (Cited Piotrowski 2014) This means, according to the Earth Island Institute (2014), that the continuation of the dolphin hunts is the result of members of the international captive display industry who pay thousands of dollars for animals considered ‘suitable’ for commercial exploitation.

Dolphins captured during the drive hunts are not only shipped domestically, but rather they are shipped to an extended global network of captive facilities for display and swim-with-the-dolphin programs. According to official trade figures (see table 1.1), during 2013 Japan’s exports included the marketing of 78 dolphins shipped to five different countries. Estimates suggest that the Taiji Fishery Union, sells selected live dolphins to localized intermediaries for about US$8,400 per animal. This equates in dollars, for the fishermen and their union, as captured dolphin for the display industry being worth in excess of ten times more than a carcass provided for the meat industry (EIA 2013:4). Marine Park demand for dolphins provides financial motivation, both for the continuation of the Taiji dolphin drives, and the resulting sales of live display dolphins to local and global byers. Ceta-Base and Whale and Dolphin Conservation report that, during the 2012-2013 drive season, September through to March, 247 Taiji dolphins were captured and sold to display aquariums creating an estimated revenue income of $US2 million for the Taiji Fishery Union, plus additional dead dolphin meat sales, and approximately $US8.5 million-plus for Taiji’s dolphin brokers (calculations based on the price per animal 2013 Trade Statistics).

The 2013-2014 is similarly believed to have been very profitable, despite official figures being as yet unavailable. Ceta-Base claim that during the most recent Taiji drive hunt season in excess of 155 dolphins were captured for sale to the display industry with an estimated revenue value of $US24 million for the fishermen, and approximately $US5 million to their intermediaries. If due consideration is given to extent of the profit involved in such an operation as Taiji, it becomes easy to understand that, for the Taiji Fishery Union and the Taiji dolphin brokers who are determined to keep the drive hunt going, there are millions of reasons to continue and very few supporting its cessation. A simple consideration of these figure Gilgoff (2014) claims, leaves little doubt that profit remains a major motivator in the sale of dolphins to the captive display industry .


Table 1.1    2013 Live Dolphin Export from Japan (Jan-Dec) (cited Zimmermann 2014)

To date the local fishing authorities have presented no sign that the hunts will cease any time in the near future. Town officials have however, outlined the construction for a ‘whale farm’ where both whales and dolphins will be held for tourists to view and swim with. Expressed indication suggest that new ‘farm’ this will not replace the drive hunts remain planned to continue (Earth Island Institute 2014).


Summary of issues

While thought provoking, The Cove holds to a steadfast depiction of Singer’s Utilitarian view of animal rights and focuses on questions of ethics surrounding Japan’s government. It also orates on the occurrence of dolphin ‘murder’ and ‘slaughter’, which occurs annually between September and May. Viewers observe the activists perspective of dolphins, not as just a source of entertainment but actually as an independently evolving intelligent species. The film also tackles numerous, similarly linked, growing issues with the aim of educating the audience in areas such as:

  • The sale, use and consumption of mercury-contaminated dolphin meat – The majority of the Japanese citizens were unaware of the occurring hunts and slaughter. Many remain uninformed of the possibility that the meat purchase is mislabeled dolphin meat.
  • The sale of dolphins to marine parks for income and entertainment
  • Small cetaceans, namely dolphins, are not protected by the International Whaling Commission (IWC).
  • Declining availabilities of food source fishing as a result of dolphin feeding
  • Perceptions of cultural heritage

Additionally The Cove, presents the injustices that continue to escalate in Japan.


Part 2: Analysis and possible recommendations

Animal Rights and welfare

“No aquarium, no tank in a marine land, however spacious it may be, can begin to duplicate the conditions of the sea. And no dolphin who inhabits one of those aquariums or one of those marine lands can be considered normal.” (Cousteau cited Hydrosight)

In efforts to improve the welfare of farm and laboratory animals a list of ‘Five Freedoms or Provisions’ was developed by the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC)to address the most basic of needs for animals “1) freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition, 2) freedom from discomfort, 3) freedom from pain, injury, and disease, 4) freedom from fear and distress, and 5) freedom to express normal behavior” (Reiss 2007). Similar ideas are set out in the proposition for the Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare (UDAW) would exist an agree that: “animals are sentient – they can suffer and feel pain, animals’ welfare needs must be respected, animal cruelty must end for good” (World Society for the Protection of Animals). From this it is clear that the Japanese drive hunts do not even meet the minimal standards applied to agricultural animals in modern societies

The Taiji dolphin drives have been separated into two phases, the first, in early September, when live capture dolphins are sought for sale, and none are slaughtered and the second, regular season of massacre which lasts until April.Undertaking these separate “capture” drives allows the industry to claim a moral standing ‘that no animals were harmed in the capture and relocation of their dolphins’ (Kirby 2013). There continues to be no effort to minimize the impact of “physiological and mental stress on animals” (Reiss 2007)

During the capture phase dolphin pods are herded using sound barriers, known as the Oikimo method, into a shallow, secluded bay which is then closed using nets. Here, the “best” are chosen to be sold into captivity (slavery if you talk to the activists), the remaining undesirable members are murdered. Unfortunately since the IWC affords no protections for 71 out of the 80 known cetacean species (OPS 2014), which includes all dolphins and porpoises, Japanese fisheries are in a position where can legally hunt and kill them. The method employed, the spinal cord transection technique (impaling the dolphins behind the blowhole to sever the spinal cord), Japanese researchers Iwasaki and Kai (2010, cited Butterworth et al. 2014:185) claim, is more humane. Butterworth et al. (2014:185) refute such claims stating that their analysis shows that this “method does not conform to the recognized requirement for ‘immediate insensibility’ and would not be tolerated or permitted in any regulated slaughterhouse process in the developed world.” (also cited Gilhooly 2013)

For those dolphins ‘fortunate’ enough to be selected for captivity suffer tremendously, as a result of their mental, emotional and social capacities, and exhibit similar abnormal behaviors as confined, self-aware animals (Tierney2010). According to Sursara (2012) cetacean found in captivity are prone to experience “depression, displacement and loneliness, and often fail to build social relationships” such that their quality of life is considerably lessened leading to “severe aggression, self-mutilation and other psychologically depressed stereotypies, causing injury and in extreme cases, death”. Finally it is commonly understood that restrictions on range and enclosure conditions associated with cetacean captivity fail to adequately replicate natural habitats.

Galarza (cites Nichols 2013) remarks that “I just don’t think captivity belongs in the 21st century…We’ve learned all we can from captivity and now that we’ve learned about the complexity of these animal – it’s the equivalent of imprisoning a human to a life of slavery”.

Article 4.

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms

Declaration of Human Rights

Food ethics

Debatably one of the more important aspects, at the core of the discussions surrounding ‘The Cove’, also presents an interesting argument on the ethics behind the hunting, sale and consumption of dolphin meat. Resultant of mass fishing, Japanese markets have become flooded with dolphin meat, and as a result can be easily found in many Japanese supermarkets, often camouflaged, or ‘accidently’ mislabeled as whale meat (The images shown below label the product and Taiji whale). The health risk associated with mercury poisoning is something that the directors endeavored to expose, and draw connections between the toxic mercury tainted dolphin meat and Minamata disease. Dolphin meat is replete with mercury on account of the position cetaceans occupy at the top of the marine food chain. Both these species consume smaller organisms, which absorb mercury from the water, and other small fish, which already have accumulated levels in their systems. This results in large concentrations of the chemical being built up in their tissue. McCurry (2008) has also related a number of health related issues associated with the consumption of dolphin meat including birth defects. These conditions have the potential to lead to severe future problems for the Japanese people (Nichols 2013). Some experts accord that this results in Japanese people exhibiting some of the most elevated mercury levels in the world, and poses serious health risks which include cardiovascular, immunological and reproductive deficiencies (EIA 2013:17), and in the worst cases the risk of developing Minamata disease (The Cove 2009).

Dolphin meat, in Japan, is not considered a delicacy, and despite the extreme toxicity Dolphin meat, the Japanese government has done nothing to protect consumers from the consumption of toxic seafoods, nor have they made attempt to educate the public about the possible risks of mercury poisoning. Rather government influence has acted toward strongly promoting its consumption (Reiss 2007).Considering this in the most simple of contexts, eating dolphin meat is akin to eating poison, and the more poison ingested, the worse it is for the individual.

(c) Leah Newey  (c) Leah Newey  (c) Leah Newey

Images 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 Photographs taken in Taiji of probable mislabeled products

Photographs courtesy of Leah Newey


Human rights considerations

“I don’t think we are going to win this issue in Japan on an animal rights issue, we are going to win it on the humanitarian reasons. It is a crime against humanity when people are serving poison as food.” (Psihoyos: The Cove 2009)

In regard to issues of human rights there are two issues that present themselves very differently. The first is that many supporters of the cause propound that dolphins are very similar to humans, more than we thought in the past. These highly social mammals are warm blooded, need air to breathe and lactate their children after birth. They have mutual emotional and cognitive characteristics close to that of humans. They share social complexes that are even perplexing to humans and these annual Taiji dolphin drives are clearly impacting these complicated animals.

The second issue surrounds issues of secrecy and deception. As touched upon in the previous section relating to food ethics, dolphin meat contains high levels of mercury which is, in high levels, toxic to humans. Considering the sale of such an item, on an essentially free market, the government isn’t the only party culpable of questionable ethics, the fishermen and distributors and vendors are equally accountable. What activists and researchers alike have found is that, on many occasions, dolphin meat has been purposefully mislabeled as whale to provide increased profits. It would be naive to consider that those responsible remain unaware that the meat is contaminated, yet market supply continues to increase.

The Japanese public, for many years, remained ignorant of the exploitation and slaughter of dolphins, and of the indiscriminant sale of dolphin meat in many supermarkets. Consequentially many people were unaware of the risks relating to the consumption of mercury-contaminated dolphin meat, and resulted in both locally and global consumption. Dolphin meat was similarly marketed to Japanese schools causing students to ingest high concentrations of mercury through the consumption of dolphin meat as lunch (Harnell 2007). The fact that the government has done little toward educating the public or to avert all probabilities of mercury poisoning, coupled with knowledge that the fishermen and brokers revere profit over ethics, creates, for many, a distressing combination of circumstances.

Article 25.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food

Article 26.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to education [In this case educated about the truth and about what is being consumed]

Declaration of Human Rights


Summary of recommendations

To date, limited documentation concerning these drives, from the perspective of animal welfare, has been made publicly available by the Japanese Government (Butterworth 2013:185), who feel that this is an imposition of Westerner standards and values on the Japanese, so a majority of the literature that exists is derived from independent and third party sources. Scientific research, however, from numerous sources consistently related that the Japanese dolphin drive hunts areperpetrated on beings that are intelligent, aware, sentient, and emotional with closely bonded social lives and important intergenerational cultural traditions using methods that“From a scientific, humane and ethical perspective, … sharply contradict current animal welfare standards employed in most modern and technologically advanced societies” (Reiss 2007) nor do they “conform to any recognized mechanism for bringing about death in accepted humane slaughter or euthanasia practice in large mammals.” (Butterworth et al. 2014:196)

These acts coupled with the deception of labeling, the limitation of information and education pertaining to the true nature of the meat being consumed, and the promotion of what is difficult to describe in any other was than as a toxic and poisonous substance are difficult to ignore. They are blatant acts of violation concerning aspects of animal rights and welfare and human rights and are indifferent in concerns for issues of food ethics. These are all unconscionable acts of violence, secrecy and betrayal that have no place in a civilized society.


Part 3: Final recommendation

“Think occasionally of the suffering of which you spare yourself the sight” (Schweitzer).

The hunts and drives that continue each year at Taiji are crime not just against animal life but also against humanity (Revkin 2010). These hunts are both unethical, and unnecessary (Vail 2013). Beginning with India’s Central Zoo Authority, who banned dolphin captivity in the country, expressing that they considered them a “highly intelligent and sensitive” species who should be properly regarded as “non-human persons” (Bridgemann 2013), more and more nations are considering their options for the future. Research has shown that dolphins, are self-aware and demonstrate individuality, are highly intelligent, have even been known to recognize themselves in mirrors, and are certainly aware of distress caused to others around themselves (BBC World News 2012). So, what are the alternatives for the inhabitants of Taiji?

Numerous alternatives to the capture, export, and killing of thousands of dolphins have been made of the years. Here are four that appear to have the most merit.

Technological developments now allow for the study cetaceans in their natural habitat. It is no longer necessary to extend already existing programs of captivity for the benefit of the scientific community. Even should initial steps be taken to begin terminating these programs today, estimates still suggest that select populations, unable to be returned to the wild, would remain viable for several decades. So naturally, these early stages would involve a means development program capable of of supporting the fishermen and others involved during the transition away from the dolphin trade. In all likelihood many of these would likely return to other forms of fishing, notably lobster and crab.

The second is to recognize that although public aquariums and marine parks offer a valuable educational resource and conservation tool, little is achieved through the capture and forced performance of these animals. It is possible to equate this to the dancing bears of Russia which was also condemned as cruelty. A perfect developmental example could be achieved through the implementation of marine tours, by boat or diving, that enable viewers to observe these animals in their natural habitat. Animal captivity fails to educate the public about nature, it fails to cultivate pro-ocean, ethical behavior, rather it degrades it, and conveys attenuated messages concerning respect, and moral and ethical responsibilities. The ability to observe wild whales and dolphins has become a very popular activity throughout out the world and is already a growing industry in Japan

This leads on to a third aspect, that Taiji is often described by those who visit as a spectacular location that offers a wealth of natural attractions, as well as some of the most historic and beautiful temples and shrines in the country. The expansion and promotion of the already existing tourist industry would provide greater opportunities for employment outside of the fishing industry and begin to create positive publicity which the location currently lacks.

Regardless or personal beliefs, ethics, moralities or expectations, it is clear that the final chapter of The Cove remains unwritten. There is also equally little doubt that with the wealth of information that exists, the hunt should cease. Humans “focus on language as the primary indicator of intelligence. Dolphins, like humans, are very sophisticated emotionally as well as intellectually. From an ethical standpoint, that’s what we should be looking at.” (White cited Waters 2014)



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