What Will End the Dolphin Slaughter?

On September 1st the dolphin hunts in Taiji, Japan were scheduled to resume despite unrelenting tsunamis of publicity around the world highlighting this brutal slaughter. In addition the village of Futo, just southeast of Tokyo, has announced it will resume dolphin hunts, mainly to secure dolphins for captivity. Dolphin hunting in Japan continues uninterrupted.

The resumption of the dolphin hunts follows a weekend, August 27 - 29, during which Animal Planet aired the two-hour season finale to Whale Wars, the fight by Sea Shepherd to stop whaling by Japan in the Antarctic, a two-hour presentation of The Cove, the academy award winning film by Louis Psoyhos featuring Ric O'Barry; and the premier of O'Barry's own three-part film series Blood Dolphins.

While issues of cruelty are a highly important part of the argument against these hunts there is another compelling reason why dolphins and whales not only should not be hunted but instead demand greater protection than ever.

Growing evidence suggests that dolphins are becoming so contaminated by marine toxins that eating them constitutes a genuine threat to human health. Health officials in Denmark and the Faroe Islands have already recommended that consumption of pilot whale meat taken in the notorious "grinds" not be eaten due to high levels of contaminants in the meat.

The issue of heavy metal contamination in large predatory fish and marine mammals is becoming well known. Less widely known are the high levels of organic pollutants such as PCBs, PBDEs, DDT, and other chemicals that suppress mammalian immune systems and disrupt normal endocrine function. Some of these chemicals are known to be estrogen imitators that act to feminize men and superfeminize women; in some cases raising the percentage of females babies born over male babies significantly.

Dolphins are already severely threatened by anthropogenic forces. During the last year numerous peer-reviewed scientific papers have been published documenting a worldwide surge in incidence of diseases heretofore unknown in dolphins.

A team of researchers and veterinarians from the Marine Animal Disease Lab at the University of Florida have discovered at least fifty new viruses in dolphins, the majority of which have yet to be reported in any other marine mammal species.

Thirty new diseases have developed simultaneously worldwide resulting from what Dr. Gregory Bossart, Chief Veterinary Officer at the Georgia Aquarium, describes as profound immunosuppression leading to environmental distress syndrome resulting from chemical intoxication.

In addition, resistance to antibiotics has been found in dolphins in numerous locations around the world. Obviously antibiotics do not occur in nature. They come from people who take antibiotics and introduce them into the ecosystem through bodily elimination or simply throwing unused pills away. After they reach the watershed plankton ingest them and they bio-accumulate up the food web to concentrate in top predators such as dolphins. The dolphins then have the potential for breeding antibiotic resistant super bugs that may pass back to humans. The transmission of disease from one species to another is called zoonosis and is of great concern to the CDC. AIDS is one example of zoonotic transmission.

I first went to Japan to stop the dolphin slaughter at Iki Island in 1979. In 1980 cameraman Howard Hall and I filmed a barbaric slaughter of scores of bottlenose dolphins. Airing of the footage around the globe caused massive worldwide protest.

In that case exposure of the brutal footage of dolphins being hacked and stabbed to death essentially brought an end to the dolphin hunt at Iki. But such publicity has not produced a similar result since.

Today I believe that sticking Japan's nose in it may be making it all but impossible for Tokyo to withdraw from whaling or dolphin hunting. A proud sovereign nation cannot allow small groups of environmentalists to be seen to make it kow-tow. If Japan stopped whaling and dolphin hunting now it would appear environmentalists had forced them to back down. But the knowledge that diseases such as brucellosis and papillomavirus are being found ever more frequently in dolphins may, ironically be what forces the end of eating dolphin meat. And if that isn't enough thirteen additional RNA-based viruses that cause intestinal disease and encephalitis in humans have also recently been discovered in dolphins

It baffles me that whaling and dolphin killing can persist in the 21st century. We know so much about these magnificent animals. Whale and dolphin watching generate over US$2.1 billion per year around the world, vastly more than whale and dolphin killing.

But human self-interest on the part of entrenched bureaucratic elites is a powerful force molding individual ethics and shaping short sighted policies. So in Japan and elsewhere whaling and dolphin hunting persist.

In the light of emerging threats to the marine ecosystem, dolphins and whales in particular, the deliberate killing of these curious, intelligent, sentient animals is tragic and will only hasten the extirpation of whole populations of these magnificent sentinels of the sea.