The current season of the bloody dolphin hunts, that take place every year in Taiji, Japan, is now two-thirds over. For four months, from Sept. 1st through the end of 2016, the dolphin hunters (weather permitting) would head out to sea to herd pods of dolphins into the notorious Cove, featured in the Academy Award-winning documentary, The Cove. The hunts will continue for another two months, until around the end of February 2017.
There, the dolphin hunters would first separate out those dolphins considered “show quality” (usually unblemished young female dolphins) to be taken to pens in the harbor and sold on the world market for aquariums, especially aquariums in Japan, China, Russia, and the Middle East. These dolphins, destined for a life in captivity doing tricks for dead fish, sell for far higher than the remaining dolphins.
Most of the remaining dolphins are callously slaughtered for meat. (Sometimes, dolphins from the pod that are too small or otherwise considered unworthy for even the meat market are herded out to sea – there they likely die, having been separated from their families and left in shock.) A dolphin, depending on its size, will bring in $500US to $600US, while trained dolphins on the world market can bring in as much as $200,000 each, although sales are usually more modest.
To date, 323 dolphins have been slaughtered in Taiji, based on observations provided by Ceta Base. This is close to the number caught and slaughtered by this time last season (Sept. 1 to Dec. 31 in 2015): a total of 319 dolphins were killed in the last four months of 2015. Last season was one of the lowest seasons on record for slaughtered dolphins in Taiji, so the current season seems to be on track to have a lower number of killed dolphins.
As noted however, the hunters make up for the low sales of dolphins for meat by selling many more dolphins for captivity. Already, the hunters have 94 dolphins in hand for this season to train for captivity. Disturbingly, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s Cove Guardians , however, report that several dead captive dolphins have already been observed being removed from their small pens.
Last year, through the work of the Earth Island International Marine Mammal Project and other organizations, the Japan Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA) finally agreed to end the sourcing of their dolphins from the Taiji slaughter. However, only about a third of all dolphin facilities in Japan are members of JAZA, and the dolphin hunters also have extensive overseas facilities that will buy Taiji’s live dolphins.
As in past seasons, the hunters apparently are not able to find many (if any) Pacific white-sided dolphins and false killer whales (actually a large dolphin). These two species are still prominent in the Japan government’s quotas for Taiji, with quotas for 70 false killer whales and 134 Pacific white-sided dolphins. But past hunting has likely reduced the number of these species.
Bottlenose dolphins also seem very low in numbers (which is why the hunters have so far not killed any for meat – they prefer to keep them for captivity or release them in the false belief that they are still viable after being chased, netted and then living through the slaughter of their pod families).
It is unclear how long the other species of dolphins and whales can hold up to the 6 months of hunts, slaughter and depletion. While several of the quotas are set at 400 to 450 animals, the hunters have not been able to kill this many in recent years, falling far below their quotas for virtually all of the species. Thus, the quotas set by the Japan Fisheries Agency are useless as conservation tools.
For the purposes of the quotas, animals meet the quota that are killed or captured for captivity; released animals, whether they live or die, are not considered part of the quotas. To date, the hunters have released 86 bottlenose dolphins and 52 spotted dolphins, plus a handful of other species, but again, it is unlikely these traumatized released dolphins fare well when returned to the ocean.
The hunters have taken time off at the end of the year, but will shortly in January head out to sea again for a further murderous two months of dolphin hunting.
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Mark J. Palmer is Associate Director of the International Marine Mammal Project of Earth Island Institute, and has worked for protection of dolphins and whales for more than 40 years.