This analysis uses data provided by CetaBase, based on estimates supplied by volunteers in Taiji.
With the season half over, dolphin hunters in Taiji have killed less than half the number of dolphins slaughtered at this time last season, with live captures for the international aquarium trade also lagging.
The Taiji dolphin drive hunts take place from Sept. 1 through the end of February (though some continued harpooning of dolphins, notably pilot whales, continues through April, as the dolphin hunters switch to fishing). The International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP) works to publicize and bring an end to the dolphin hunts that were featured in the Academy Award-winning documentary, “The Cove”, produced by the Oceanic Preservation Society.
With half the season over, the total number of dolphins slaughtered so far is only 129 dolphins, despite Taiji receiving quotas for two new species to kill this season. This compares with 300 dolphins killed by Nov. 30th in 2016, making this season’s kill only 43% of last season’s at this time.
The total Taiji quota for this season is 1,920 dolphins, who can be either slaughtered for the meat trade or captured for use in captivity trade (dolphins who are released are not counted against the quotas). These quotas, set by the Japan Fisheries Agency, are totally inflated and have little connection with the actual status of the dolphin populations. The Japan Fisheries Agency does no population field surveys of these dolphin pods targeted by Taiji.
The majority of those killed so far this season are melon-headed whales, with 73 slaughtered during the first year that Taiji has been awarded a quota to kill this species. 30 short-finned pilot whales were killed, and two died of stress during their time in the Cove. 20 Risso’s dolphins were also killed, and four rough-toothed dolphins have been butchered for meat - also a new quota for Taiji this season.
For the captivity trade so far this season, Taiji hunters have caught 17 bottlenose dolphins, 16 rough-toothed dolphins (again, a new quota for the first time this season), six melon-headed whales (also new this season), and six Risso’s dolphins - adding up to a total of 48 dolphins imprisoned for lifetimes in captivity. At this time last season, hunters caught 69 dolphins for captivity, almost all bottlenose dolphins except for one pilot whale. Individuals caught for captivity are trained and sold to aquariums in Japan, China, Russia and other countries.
One major trend that likely contributes to the lower levels of butchered dolphins is the fact that fewer Japanese people are eating whale and dolphin meat. Despite significant efforts by the Japan Fisheries Agency to encourage the public to buy and eat whale and dolphin meat, for example by hosting conferences promoting these products, sales remain very low. The older generation of Japanese, who ate whale meat regularly in school lunches during the aftermath of World War II and General Douglas MacArthur’s revitalization of the whaling fleets to feed the Japanese, are moving on, while younger generations appear to prefer other seafood and meat.
Awareness around the issue of eating cetaceans could be increasing. Along with OPS, we put copies of the Japanese-language version of “The Cove” into every mailbox in Taiji. We also helped raise awareness about the dangers of eating dolphin meat.Tests conducted by IMMP and other organizations clearly show that the meat carries high levels of mercury and PCBs, and is not fit for human consumption.
Another troubling long-term trend appears to be the depletion of several species of dolphins found off Taiji, which could explain the logic behind Taiji asking the Japan Fisheries Agency permission to begin killing two new species of dolphins, the melon-headed whales and rough-toothed dolphins, who are generally found off-shore. Indeed, the hunters have already exceeded their new quotas for both these species for the entire season.
Bottlenose dolphins, highly prized for captivity, seem particularly scarce. As noted above, by this time last season, 68 bottlenose dolphins had already been captured versus only 17 bottlenose caught so far this season for captivity. The dolphin hunters appear to be taking more conservation-minded approaches to this valuable species by returning many of the pod mates back to sea without killing any for the meat trade. But it is not at all clear that these stressed individuals from broken pods released back into the ocean from the Cove are even able to survive.
Several other species seem scarce in recent years, such as the false killer whale and Pacific white-sided dolphins. No false killer whales were caught all season last year, and only 20 Pacific white-sided dolphins were caught all last season. Both species continue to be ellusive so far this season.
A final problem the dolphin hunters are encountering this year is a combination of bad weather and bad luck. Reports from Taiji show frequent days of rain and high winds, which makes dolphin hunting very difficult, both to spot the dolphins in the first place and to herd them into the notorious Cove during heavy weather. Often, the hunters don’t bother to go out at all during bad weather. The Wakayama Peninsula where Taiji is situated has some of the worst weather in all of Japan.
However, these numbers can change rapidly. Already in early December, Taiji killed an additional 20 melon-headed whales and caught eight more rough-toothed dolphins for captivity. If a large pod of dolphins is found, the hunters’ kill can expand substantially, so there is still time for the hunters to catch up with last season’s numbers.
As I write this, Taiji hunters are out seeking additional dolphins to kill. They have three more months of bloody slaughter ahead of them.
Earth Island’s IMMP continues to work to expose the dolphin hunts and pressure the Japanese government to end the hunts, along with Japan’s illegal whaling operations.
To learn more about economic alternatives for Taiji, click here.
Learn about our request to the Olympics Committee to ban dolphin and whale products at Tokyo 2020 Olympics, here.
Photo courtesy of Liz Carter.