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Analysis of Taiji Dolphin Slaughter for Season 2017-18

Topics: Dolphin and Whale Trade, Dolphins, Slaughter, Taiji, Japan

The horrible and heartless season of slaughter of dolphins in Taiji has ceased for now (although Taiji hunters can still harpoon dolphins, mostly pilot whales, during the next few months as they go out from Taiji to fish).  It is time to assess how this past season, from Sept. 1st, 2017 to March 1st, 2018, has played out.

The International Marine Mammal Project remains adamantly opposed and actively working to end the cruel and completely unnecessary dolphin hunts in Taiji and elsewhere in Japan.  

The season began slowly in the last few months of 2017, with the catches of dolphins, both for captivity and for meat, way down from previous years, most likely due to bad weather in the Taiji area. However, in the last two months of the season in 2018, large drives were made to make up for the slow beginning.

There were also several major new developments this season, including new and increased quotas for more species of dolphins for Taiji from the notorious Japan Fisheries Agency.  One hopeful development was a series of demonstrations in Taiji , Osaka, and Tokyo organized and carried out by Japanese activists against the Taiji hunts and the incarcerating of dolphins and whales in captivity.

The following figures were obtained from Ceta Base which records estimates of numbers of the Taiji hunts from volunteers who spend their own time and money checking the dolphin drive hunts.  They are not official figures (which the Japanese government usually does not release for months). Also, there are many ways that dolphins die without being seen by onshore observers.  We appreciate the work of both groups for their efforts to record and publicize the Taiji slaughters.

This year, according to Ceta Base, a total of 610 dolphins were slaughtered, slightly higher than last season’s (2016-17) slaughter of 595 total dolphins.  Five additional dolphins apparently died of capture stress or entanglement. Two species of dolphins, not previously slaughtered, contributed to this sum, as explained below.  A total of 107 dolphins of several species (not just the popular bottlenose dolphins) were taken for captivity, a large decrease from last season’s record catch of 232 for captivity.

The total quota for dolphins for this hunt season in Taiji, approved by the Japan Fisheries Agency, was 2,178 total dolphins for slaughter for meat or for captivity, so once again, the quotas are totally meaningless.  In fact, the Fisheries Agency awarded Taiji two new species that had not been part of previous dolphin hunts – melon-headed whales and rough-toothed dolphins – for a total of nine species instead of the previous seven species.  Furthermore, the Fisheries Agency increased these quotas three times during the season for the melon-headed whales, pilot whales, and rough-toothed dolphins.

Yet the hunters of Taiji still fell far short of the quotas.

There are several possible explanations for this:

 1)   As noted, the early months at the end of 2017 had bad weather that kept the dolphin hunters off the ocean for many days.  Better weather and hunting conditions occurred in the early months of 2018, but the hunters still could not find enough dolphins to kill and capture.

2)   Sources in Taiji have told us that the work of IMMP and other organizations to publicize the dangers of mercury contamination of dolphin meat, which is far higher than health authorities recommend for human consumption, has resulted in reduced sales of dolphin meat for the Taiji hunters.  Unfortunately, the sale of captured dolphins for the captivity industry is still very lucrative and brings far more money into the hands of the hunters and the Taiji Whale Museum, owned by the Taiji local government. Dolphins from Taiji are routinely sold to Japan aquariums (there are a hundred dolphinariums and swim-with-dolphins facilities in Japan) and exported to China, Russia, and the Middle East.  Thus the captivity industry continues to subsidize the dolphin slaughter.

3)   It is likely the local populations of dolphins that seasonally migrate past Taiji are being depleted by the relentless 6-months-long hunts.  

This season, for example, only 52 bottlenose dolphins were caught.  The bottlenose (like the dolphins in the Flipper televisions series) are the most popular dolphins for aquariums and swim-with-dolphins facilities.  The Taiji hunters kept 25 of this species for a life of captivity and released 27 of them back into the ocean. It is likely that due to the physiological stress from the captures and the breakup of the social pods that many of those released may not survive, adding to the toll of uncounted deaths.  Last season (2016-17), by contrast, a whopping 469 bottlenose dolphins were caught, of which 179 were kept for captivity and the balance released. The Taiji hunters appear to be trying to conserve the bottlenose dolphins by not slaughtering any for meat, as they get far more revenue from live bottlenose dolphins.  A dead bottlenose dolphin will bring in roughly $500 to $600 as meat sold by the Taiji hunters to markets and the public. But a trained live dolphin can go for as much as $150,000US or more on the world market.

No spotted dolphins or false killer whales were caught this season, and only 24 Pacific white-sided dolphins were caught (19 were kept for captivity and the rest released), again suggesting these species are getting rare.  By contrast, the hunters were able to catch 94 of the newly sought rough-toothed dolphins and 191 melon-headed whales (only striped dolphins, which move in large pods, were caught in larger numbers, for a total of 288 caught, all of which were slaughtered for meat except 4 held for captivity – the species does very poorly in aquariums).  Only 4 of the rough-toothed dolphins were slaughtered for meat, while 24 were kept for exhibit and the rest released – apparently they don’t taste very good. By contrast, 136 of the melon-headed whales were slaughtered and 8 kept for captivity, with the hunters releasing 47.

The Japan Fisheries Agency, on December 1st, during the hunt, increased the quota for both melon-headed whales and rough-toothed dolphins in Taiji.  Then, on Dec. 27th, the Agency again raised the quota (by 100) for the melon-headed whales.  On January 24th, the Agency raised the quota for pilot whales by 31.

These terrible hunts continue, and if anything, they appear to be gaining more support from the government while the numbers of dolphins caught continues to decline.  Recently, according to journalist Jay Alabaster, a number of young Japanese parliamentarians came to Taiji to witness the drive hunts, cheering as the dolphins were herded into shore.  (They left before the bloodshed began, likely to avoid splashing blood on their nice suits and ties.) The government of conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe continues to promote dolphin hunting and whaling.

In addition to the new quotas, several other events marked this season’s dolphin hunts.  The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society ended its campaign of observing and protesting the dolphin hunts in Taiji.  Sea Shepherd staff and volunteers had been increasingly stopped at the airport when arriving in Japan and deported out of the country.  Because of the absence of Sea Shepard, media coverage of the dolphin hunts in Western media was largely absent. Sea Shepherd determined that continued presence in Taiji was untenable and is focusing on the international trade in live dolphins, the economic backbone of the Taiji drive hunts.  

But one new development brings a ray of hope.  Japanese activists have previously been involved in protesting the Taiji hunts and the keeping of dolphins and whales in captivity in Japan, but usually as part of a larger effort by Western organizations (including IMMP).  This past season, a number of demonstrations were held by Japanese groups organized without outside help in Taiji in front of the Taiji Whale Museum, in the nearby metropolis of Osaka, and in Tokyo. If the Japanese activists can continue their efforts and expand their numbers, the leaders of Japan will have to listen.
Japan can no longer hide the dolphin and whale hunts from the world public.  If they are to remain in harmony with world opinion and not be considered international scofflaws, they must end the slaughter, now!
IMMP is continuing efforts to end the killing of dolphins and whales (including Japan’s illegal “scientific” whaling operations in Antarctica and the North Pacific).   For example, the upcoming 2020 Olympics in Tokyo presents an opportunity for IMMP to advance our campaign goals of ending the hunting of dolphins and whales by Japan. A global spotlight will be on Japan for those sports events, providing a number of occasions for IMMP to emphasize to the Japan government the high risk they run in continuing unpopular whale and dolphin killing operations. 

The International Olympics Committee has put IMMP in touch with Japan’s Olympics Committee, and we are waiting for an answer to our request that Japan end the killing of whales and dolphins before the 2020 Olympic games and that any sales or giveaways of dolphin or whale meat be banned at the Olympic ceremonies.  Further action is being planned.
Image by Oceanic Preservation Society.