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Frequently Asked Questions: Save Japan Dolphins Campaign

| Save Japan Dolphins
Topics: Dolphin and Whale Trade, Dolphins, SeaWorld, Taiji, Japan

Who is killing the dolphins in Japan?

One often encounters this statement: “The Japanese are killing the whales and dolphins!” But it is not the Japanese people who are doing this – only a very small fraction of Japanese people are engaged in these hunts.  The captures of dolphins in the small fishing village of Taiji are carried out by about 24 hunters.  They kill the dolphins with permits from the Japanese government. Another two-dozen or more help with the slaughter on the beach, the carving up of the meat, and the distribution of the meat.  Most of the people in the town of Taiji have nothing to do with the hunts.  The majority of people in Japan are totally unaware of this annual government-sanctioned dolphin blood bath because of the media blackout on this issue in Japan.  Unfortunately, the Japanese people only hear the propaganda of the Japan Fisheries Agency, and not the facts concerning the importance and intelligence of dolphins and whales.


What species do they kill and how many?

The Japanese government’s Fisheries Agency issued 16,496 permits to kill dolphins, porpoises and other small whales for the 2013-2014 season throughout Japan.  (When The Cove documentary film was being made, the number of annual permits issued at that time was more than 23,000.)  The numbers killed in Japan vary from year to year.  In 2007, 13,107 dolphins and small whales were reportedly killed whereas in 2011, only 3,283 dolphins were killed.  These numbers do not include the hundreds of large whales killed by Japan under so-called “scientific” whaling permits in the North Pacific and Antarctic Oceans.  The number of dolphins and whales killed in Taiji has been decreasing in part due to the successful efforts by the Earth Island Save Japan Dolphins Campaign and other organizations.  The other reason the kill rate is going down is that the Japanese fishermen are likely killing off too many dolphins.  About 700 to 1,800 of these dolphins are killed in the so-called dolphin drive hunt in Taiji, also known as a “drive fishery.” 

The targeted dolphin species include:

Striped dolphins
Bottlenose dolphins
Pantropical spotted dolphins
Risso’s dolphins (also called grampus)
Pilot whales
Rough-toothed dolphins
Pseudo orcas (also called false killer whales)
Pacific white-sided dolphins
Baird’s beaked whales
Dall’s porpoises

Taiji dolphin hunters also caught ten orca whales in 2007 for captivity. They have all subsequently died an early death in captivity.


What progress has been made to end the dolphin hunts?


Have you thought about suing to stop the hunts? 

Yes, we have, repeatedly investigated the possibilities of using Japanese courts to end the slaughter.  Earth Island recently joined with Australia for Dolphins in supporting their lawsuit against the Taiji Whale Museum over discrimination.  The museum staff were stopping Westerners, including Earth Island staff and volunteer monitors, from entering the museum.  We are hopeful that this is just the first of future legal actions. It should be noted that the hunts are legal and sanctioned by the Japanese government and that Japanese laws exempt seafood (including dolphin meat) from meeting health restrictions on mercury content.  These barriers make lawsuits against the hunts or the mercury issue very difficult to succeed.  The Japanese courts are notoriously slow and conservative.  We continue to work with lawyers in Japan to see if there is a way to address these key issues.  Information on the Taiji Whale Museum lawsuit can be found here, here, and here.


Why is it called “drive fishery”?

The term “drive fishery” derives from the method of driving, or herding, dolphins into a designated killing cove or harbor.  We avoid the term “drive fishery,” as it leads many to believe that we are talking about fish rather than large marine mammals.  Therefore, we call it the “dolphin drive hunt.”  The annual dolphin drive hunt is part of coastal whaling.

When does the dolphin drive hunt take place?

For several years, the dolphin drive hunt in Taiji had taken place from the beginning of October through March.  In recent years, however, the dolphin hunters in Taiji have started the dolphin-killing season in early September.  In the past few years, the dolphin hunters, due to a lack of demand for dolphin meat in Japan (inspired by our efforts to educate people about the high mercury levels in the meat) have ended the hunts a month early, at the end of February, rather than the end of March.  Some harpooning of dolphins continues offshore of Taiji in March and sometimes in April. 

How do they capture the dolphins?

Before sunrise, about 24 dolphin hunters board their 12 motorized vessels and head out to deep water where the dolphins migrate.  The dolphins have been using these migratory paths for thousands, perhaps millions, of years, and the hunters know exactly where to find them.  When a school of dolphins swims by, the fishermen position their boats one behind the other, perfectly evenly spaced.  Then they lower several stainless steel poles into the water, one on each side of each boat.  The poles are flared out at the bottom much like a bell, which amplifies the sound produced when the hunters repeatedly hit the poles with hammers.  The noise creates a wall of sound underwater, and the dolphins suddenly find themselves trapped between this wall of sound and the shoreline.  Trying to get away from the sound, the dolphins swim in the opposite direction, toward the shore.  The dolphins’ panic and loss of navigational sense enable the dolphin hunters to drive them into a small, hidden Cove near the Taiji harbor.  The fishermen seal the mouth of the Cove with several nets, and thus the dolphins are trapped.

Why do the dolphin hunters leave the dolphins in the Cove overnight before they kill them?

Some claim that the meat tastes better once the dolphins are killed after having calmed down overnight.  However, the dolphins remain frantic throughout the night and into the next day.  We think there are two reasons that the fishermen don’t kill the dolphins right away.  First, it’s much more convenient for them to rest up and return to the Cove the next morning to kill and butcher the dolphins.  Another reason is that the killing Cove turns a bright red with blood during the slaughter, which takes a while to wash out to sea.  Since many Japanese tourists visit the Cove to enjoy the beautiful view in the afternoon, killing the dolphins at sunrise ensures that few people will witness it.  The fishermen depend on a high level of secrecy to continue the dolphin hunt.  In recent years, as our presence in Taiji at the Cove has become better known, and more volunteer monitors show up to protest, dolphin hunters are now killing the dolphins immediately.  We suspect they do this to avoid having protestors trying to cut the nets at night to release the dolphins.  Sometimes the dolphins are left overnight (sometimes for days at a time without food) in the Cove so that members of the captivity industry can come view and select them.

Why can’t Save Japan Dolphins put out noisemakers or their own boats to block the hunts?

Almost one hundred Japanese police and the Japan Coast Guard closely guard the people of Taiji and the hunts.  If a boat gets within a few miles of the dolphin drive, they are cut off by Coast Guard vessels and warned to stay away.  Any noise-making machine placed in the water or on the bottom of the ocean would be heard and found by the fishermen or the Coast Guard, who would of course pull it up and disable it.  They have sophisticated SONAR equipment and can identify any unusual sound as soon as it is turned on.  It is also likely that our staff or volunteers would get arrested and deported for any interference in the dolphin hunts.  Interfering with the hunts is simply not practical.

Why can’t Save Japan Dolphins cut the nets to release the dolphins?

There is a huge presence of police and other security, so that would be no easy task.  Furthermore, in recent years, the dolphin hunters now string multiple nets across the Cove.  Dolphins do not like to swim through narrow places, so even if a swimmer/diver managed to cut through several nets and make it to the dolphins, getting them to take advantage of the holes would be very difficult.  Again, interfering with the hunts is really not practical.  A major reason why we do not support illegal activities in Taiji is that our friends in Japan who are active on this issue and oppose the hunts have told us that they could not work with us if Japanese police arrested us.  This is a major stigma in Japan, even if one is innocent.  If we are to continue to make progress in Japan with our allies there, we have to avoid breaking any laws there.  Also, we would certainly be denied entry into Japan if we engage in any illegal activity, which would interfere with our critical ongoing work there.

Why don't the dolphins jump the nets?

When standing at the mouth of the killing Cove in Taiji, we have often looked down at a pod of dolphins trapped in the Cove.  From above, it’s obvious that all the dolphins have to do is jump the nets, and they would be out of harm’s way.  But the dolphins don’t have this advantage of seeing everything from above.  They don’t know what’s on the other side of the nets.  To us, a jump would be a leap into safety.  To them, it’s a leap into the unknown.  It’s also important to keep in mind that nets and other artificial boundaries are foreign objects to wild dolphins.  Living in a three-dimensional world, the only boundaries they know are natural: the shoreline and the ocean’s surface.  A net, on the other hand, is completely unfamiliar to them.  Dolphins in captivity have to be trained to jump over things—it is not a natural behavior.

How do they kill the dolphins?

In the past, just before sunrise, the fishermen would herd the trapped dolphins into shallow water, close to the rocky beach.  Here, they would kill the dolphins with long, sharp spears. Often times, they would stab the dolphins with sharp fishermen’s hooks and haul the still living dolphins onto their boats.  The cruelty is enormous.  The dolphins would thrash about in their own blood, and fill the air with their screams.

Since The Cove documentary came out, the fishermen have altered their killing methods.  The fishermen pull dolphins underneath an array of plastic tarps (set up to prevent us from filming the slaughter).  There, the fishermen push a sharp metal spike into the dolphins’ necks just behind the blowholes, which is supposed to sever the spinal cord and produce an instant “humane” death.  In fact, we have film footage from hidden cameras under the tarps that show the dolphins thrashing for minutes on end in agony.  The fishermen even push wooden corks into the wounds to prevent spilling blood into the Cove, again to prevent us from filming blood-red waters.  Several veterinarians and scientists have examined these films, and they state that the dolphin killing methods used in Taiji would be illegal if used in slaughterhouses in the United States, Europe, or Japan.

Why do they kill the dolphins?

Have you ever seen dolphins escape after they were chased into the killing Cove?

Yes, but very rarely.  The dolphin hunters are often able to catch such animals before they can fully escape into the ocean, and even if they do escape, they are without their pod to support them.

Do the dolphin hunters ever release any dolphins?

In the past few years, after The Cove came out in Japan, dolphin hunters will sometimes, usually in the first month of the dolphin hunting season, capture a pod of bottlenose dolphins, remove some for captivity, and then chase the rest of pod back out to sea, releasing them without killing any.  We believe this is a public relations gimmick by the captivity industry to distance itself from the slaughter.  For the rest of the season, bottlenose pods are slaughtered just like any other pod.  We have also observed on some occasions that a few pod members of other species will be released after the rest of the pod is slaughtered.  We believe these are smaller animals (and hence the young).  The quotas in Taiji are based on the number of dolphins killed, not the net weight, so by keeping large adult dolphins with a lot of meat for slaughter, and releasing the undersized animals, the dolphin hunters avoid violating their quotas but get more meat.  The released animals are traumatized and stressed by the hunts, and without the support of the rest of the pod, are unlikely to survive very long. 

Why do members of the dolphinarium industry take advantage of the hunt?

Dolphinariums are always looking for ways to obtain more dolphins.  This is because, unbeknownst to the public, dolphins die prematurely in captivity at a very high rate.  Many times, the dolphin hunters of Taiji will drive a large school of bottlenose dolphins, pilot whales, or false killer whales into the killing Cove, and dolphin trainers and marine mammal veterinarians flock to the scene to seek out the best-looking dolphins for their display facilities.  By doing business with the dolphin killers, they are helping to maintain the dolphin drive hunts.  A live dolphin sold to live in captivity can go for as much as $155,000US, whereas the meat only brings in $500-600US, depending on the size of the dolphin.  The captivity industry is a major reason that the dolphin slaughter is still going on.

But aren’t dolphinariums saving the selected dolphins from slaughter?

We view this claim as nothing but propaganda, aimed at concealing the fact that they are fuelling the dolphin hunt by making it tremendously profitable.  Working side by side, dolphin trainers and fishermen force the dolphins into shallow water, haul the dolphins ashore, and line them up.  The trainers then inspect the dolphins one by one, choosing only the ones that can be used in dolphin shows and captive dolphin swim programs.  They are typically looking for young, unblemished female dolphins.  The grueling selection process drags on for several hours, and some dolphins die either from shock, injuries or exhaustion during this time.  They “save” only the ones that can be commercially exploited in the display industry.  The ones that are too old, too young, have the wrong gender, are injured, or have too many blemishes are not worth “saving,” so they let the dolphin hunters kill them.  They take advantage of the dolphin slaughter to nourish the huge profits made from captive dolphins.

The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) has a policy that its member zoos and aquariums should not get captive dolphins from drive hunts, but this policy was routinely violated by WAZA members, including the Japan Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA).  Finally, after a 10-year campaign by Earth Island’s Save Japan Dolphins and other organizations, WAZA took action, giving JAZA members a choice: stop the sourcing of captive dolphins from the Taiji hunts or leave WAZA.  After a tumultuous vote, JAZA members agreed to end captures of live dolphins in the Taiji hunts.  However, the Taiji dolphin hunters still have many facilities in Japan and overseas which are not members of WAZA or JAZA.

Have youy seen dolphin trainers actually assisting in killing dolphins?

Yes.  Several times, we have seen dolphin trainers and dolphin killers in the same boat, laughing and joking around after a large school of dolphins had just been killed.  We have seen members of the international aquarium and zoo industry get in the water with the dolphin killers, tying ropes around the dolphins’ tail flukes so that the fishermen could tie the dolphins to their boats.  Often times, the dolphins are so exhausted at this point that they can’t even stay afloat.  Some have large amounts of blood coming out of their blowholes.  The dolphin trainers don’t seem to care.  The fishermen haul the dolphins to the killing Cove, with the dolphins’ blowholes underwater.  Dolphin trainers have tormented the dolphins for hours.  Some are in shock.  Others are seriously injured, and they can’t breathe.  Now, they are going to be killed and slaughtered.  Not even pregnant females or young calves will be spared.  But the dolphin trainers, who claim to “love” dolphins, don’t try to save any of them.

What aquariums purchase Taiji dolphins for captivity?

Specific information is hard to come by—no aquarium or Taiji officials want to publicize which the buyers are.  A number of aquariums and swim-with-dolphins programs around the world purchase live dolphins caught in the bloody drive hunts of Taiji.  Japan alone has more than 100 dolphinariums and swim-with-dolphins programs, ranging from large aquarium facilities with huge tanks and dolphin shows to small tanks at motels or floating sea pens in harbors.  In the last 10 years alone, dolphin exports from Taiji, Japan, have gone to China, Korea, Ukraine, Russia, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and the Philippines.

U.S. aquariums such as SeaWorld claim they don’t import dolphins from Taiji.  This is only true since Earth Island threatened in 1993 to sue the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for allowing such imports.  NMFS examined the laws and agreed with our lawyers that imports from Taiji, Japan, were illegal because U.S. law specifies that captures of marine mammals should be humane.  Prior to that ruling, imported dolphins and small cetaceans from drive hunts in Japan, such as false killer whales, were obtained by SeaWorld, the Indianapolis Zoological Society, Miami Seaquarium, and the U.S. Navy.  Dolphin brokers from the United States are often still spotted in Taiji.

What’s wrong with eating dolphin meat?

Cruelty issues set aside, dolphin meat from drive hunts in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, prove to be highly contaminated with toxic chemicals such as mercury, methyl mercury, and PCBs.  Repeated chemical analyses have shown that the level of mercury in dolphin meat is much higher than the maximum allowable level set by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare of Japan and the World Health Organization.  However, Japanese law exempts seafood, including dolphin meat, from the mercury level standards applied to other foods.  The contamination of dolphin meat by mercury in Japan has been documented time and time again, by Earth Island, other nongovernmental organizations, and by Japanese scientists.  There is worldwide concern that mercury accumulated in the human body poses a serious health risk, especially to pregnant women and children, leading to brain and nerve damage.  The contaminated dolphin meat in Japanese markets does not have a warning label.  

Where else in the world are dolphins being slaughtered?

Dolphin drive hunts in the Japanese communities of Futo and Iki Island ended in recent years, but many hunters still hunt thousands of Dall’s porpoises with harpoons in the nearshore waters of northern Japan.  Okinawa has a small dolphin hunt.  Dolphin drive hunts similar to Taiji also occur in the Faroe Islands and in the Solomon Islands.  The Faroe Islanders hunt pilot whales annually and have so far resisted calls to end the slaughter, with the whale kill varying year to year from a few hundred to a thousand or more.  The Faroese health ministry (unlike the Japanese health authorities) has issued warnings that the toxic pilot whale meat should not be eaten by humans.  In the Solomon Islands, in March 2010, Earth Island, after several years of negotiations, reached agreement with several coastal communities to end the killing of about 2,000 dolphins annually.  In return, Earth Island is helping the islanders with funding to develop alternative fisheries, energy, and clean water supplies to improve their lives.  Unfortunately, due to internal politics, one village has gone back to killing dolphins.  In Latin America, particularly Peru and Brazil, and in Indonesia, there are reports of dolphins being killed for meat and for bait for fisheries.  Dolphins, other whales, and marine mammals are also killed for subsistence purposes in Greenland, Alaska and Siberia, although some of these hunts are controversial and certainly still cruel. 

As long as cows and pigs continue to be mistreated in the Western world, what right to we have to criticize the dolphin hunt?

Cows, pigs, and other domesticated animals are also being consumed in great numbers in Japan.  The inhumane treatment of domesticated animals in Western slaughterhouses presents yet another pressing animal welfare issue.  Our campaign coordinates with a number of organizations that work on several animal welfare and environmental issues.  Among them are the Korean dog trade, stopping the use of elephants in the circus industry, and abolishing factory farming, just to name a few.  But you cannot be effective if you work on all animal issues at the same time.  Our Save Japan Dolphins Campaign, therefore, focuses on one issue, which is that of stopping the largest slaughter of dolphins in the world.  That is why we are making so much progress, through our focus.

Veterinarians and scientists have reviewed the killing of dolphins in Taiji and have declared that the techniques used would be illegal if used in slaughterhouses in Japan, the United States, and Europe.  Simply because animals are mistreated in the Western world, does that mean that a Westerner who cares about animal welfare should overlook animal welfare issues abroad?  No, of course not.  If an animal welfare organization from Japan or any other country came to the United States to document and expose the cruelty that goes in our slaughterhouses, we would welcome them with open arms and help them achieve their goals.  Animals don’t carry passports.  They are not nationalistic, and our work to save them shouldn’t be, either.

What right do you, as Westerners, have to tell the Japanese what to do?

We usually receive this question from the dolphin hunters who make a living hunting dolphins.  Government officials in Japan are trying to turn the dolphin slaughter issue into one of “cultural imperialism.”  But we are not telling the Japanese people what to do.  On the contrary, we are fighting for the Japanese public’s constitutional right, given in Article 21 of the Japanese Constitution, to know the facts about an issue that the Taiji dolphin hunters and their government are systematically hiding from them.  Most people in Japan have no idea that the dolphin slaughter is going on.  And they have no idea that the dolphin meat that is served to their children in their schools’ lunch programs or sold in markets is poisoned with mercury.  The Taiji dolphin hunters once told us that the public has no right to know about the dolphin hunts and the mercury contamination of dolphin meat.  We say the Japanese public has every right to know about it.  They have a right to make up their own minds regarding their food culture, rather than have the government and some few dolphin hunters dictate to them what their “culture” should be.

Is the killing of dolphins and whales a “cultural tradition” in Japan?

This is another myth perpetrated on the Japanese people and world by the Japanese government.  Japan did have some shore-based whaling in the 12th and 13th centuries, but that died out long ago.  Commercial whaling did not begin in Japan until the turn of the 19th century, when technology was borrowed from Norway to set up shore stations.  There was considerable opposition to the shore stations by local fishermen at the time, because the butchering and processing of the whales polluted local waters.  Japan’s whaling in Antarctica did not begin until the 1930s.  Our colleagues with the Elsa Nature Conservancy of Japan conducted research and discovered that the Taiji drive hunts did not begin until 1969, when the Taiji Whale Museum wanted to catch some dolphins for their exhibits.  There is nothing “traditional” or “ancient” about Japan’s current slaughter of whales and dolphins.

What can I do to help?

There are lots of things that people can do to help end the slaughter of dolphins in Japan.  Go to our Take Action page on our Save Japan Dolphins campaign website and take the steps outlined there.  Ask your friends, your neighbors, your family, and your classmates to go there, too, so they can add their voices to yours.  If you are in school, you can consider screening The Cove in your class or school.  You can get your friends together to form a Cove Club.  Donations to our cause are always welcome, even small offerings.  Many people set up Cove House Parties to raise funds to help our efforts.  Everybody can do something to help our effort. You are only limited by your imagination.

What are Save Japan Dolphins donations used for?

Earth Island Institute is a nonprofit organization working to protect the Earth and all its diversity, registered with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service as a 501c3 charity.  Earth Island has top ratings from Charity Navigator, the gold standard in ethical and transparent nonprofit fundraising.  All donations to Earth Island’s Save Japan Dolphins Campaign are tax deductible to the full extent of the law.

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You can donate to support our work here. 

How is the Save Japan Dolphins Campaign related to The Cove documentary?

The Cove is about Earth Island’s efforts in Japan to protect the dolphins.  Earth Island did not make The Cove, we do not own the rights, and we receive no money from The Cove ticket, television, or DVD sales.  The Cove was made by our friends Louis Psihoyos and Fisher Stevens with the Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS).  For more information on OPS and The Cove, including information on screening The Cove, visit their website.