The fishermen of Taiji have developed a highly effective method of locating, capturing and eradicating dolphins, sometimes as many as one hundred or more in a single day. Before sunrise, about 24 fishermen 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 Taiji harbor. The fishermen seal the mouth of the Cove with several nets, and the dolphins are trapped.
In the past, after the dolphin hunters sealed the killing Cove with large nets, they would leave the dolphins in the Cove, returning the next day at sunrise to kill them. Why didn’t they kill them right away? One theory is that the dolphin meat tastes better if the dolphins are left overnight so that they calm down after the chase. But this is hard to believe. We have spent hours observing schools of dolphins after they were chased into the killing Cove. At no point do they appear to be “relaxed.” On the contrary, they spend the entire time hyperventilating, circling their confinement and looking for a way out.
We think there are two reasons that the fishermen didn’t kill the dolphins right away: The hunt often goes on for eight or nine hours, sometimes even longer, with the dolphins escaping the boats, and the fishermen chasing them down again. By the time the dolphin hunters have chased the dolphins into the killing Cove and sealed their fate with nets, they just want to go home. 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 good reason for the fishermen to carry out the bloodbath in the early morning hours is that the killing Cove turns a bright red with blood during the slaughter. It takes a while for all the blood to wash out to sea. In the afternoon, many Japanese tourists come to the Cove to enjoy the beautiful view; unaware that this is where thousands of dolphins are killed in an unimaginably horrific blood bath. The fishermen depend on a high level of secrecy to continue the dolphin hunt. They don’t want the Japanese people to know about it, and by killing the dolphins at sunrise, they make sure there is no one to witness it.
In recent years, as our presence in Taiji at the Cove has become better known and more volunteer monitors show up to protest, fishermen are now killing the dolphins immediately, rather than leaving them overnight. We suspect they do this to avoid having protestors try to cut the nets at night to release the dolphins.
When the captivity industry expresses interest in coming to check over the dolphins in the Cove to choose some for a life in captivity, the dolphins will often be left overnight in the Cove, sometimes for several days at a time, without food and without hope.
Why do they kill the dolphins?
Officially, the main purpose of the dolphin hunt is to provide dolphin meat to the Japanese people. But only a small minority of people in Japan actually eats the meat. During our many campaigns in Japan, we even got the impression that dolphin meat is considered “trashy,” unlike the much more expensive whale meat. DNA tests on meat labeled “whale meat” in Japanese markets have sometimes revealed the meat is in fact dolphin meat. Whale meat sells for more money than dolphin meat; so Japanese consumers are tricked into buying dolphin meat falsely labeled as “whale” meat.
There is another essential, and rather shocking, aspect to the dolphin hunt: During a meeting with the Taiji fishermen in January 2004, the dolphin hunters told us that they do not only hunt dolphins for their meat or for sale to the dolphinarium industry. In their own words, they kill the dolphins “as a form of pest control.” The dolphins, from the fishermen’s perspective, eat too much fish, and the fishermen are simply killing the competition. This is the first time ever that Japanese dolphin hunters have openly admitted to executing pest control on dolphins.
Over-fishing of the oceans is a tremendous problem on a global level, and the Japanese fishermen, supported by their government, are wrongly pointing at the dolphins as the reason for this depletion. The Japanese government is making the same false argument in front of the International Whaling Commission that whales eat fish and therefore need to be controlled by killing. The desire to keep the dolphin population down is a major reason why the Japanese government is so keen on issuing permits for the hunts. This is also why the idea of conserving the dolphin populations for the future is not practiced by the government. It is not really about providing meat for the Japanese people. It is not really about maintaining what the fishermen repeatedly refer to as their “tradition” or “culture.” It is about eradicating as many dolphins as possible in order to make the oceans’ fish available to themselves. We know of several areas in Japan where local dolphin populations have declined or been eradicated by this mentality, fully supported by the Japanese government.
In addition, the powerful Japan Fisheries Agency promotes the killing of dolphins and whales as part of Japan’s “food culture”, despite the fact that few Japanese are interested in eating whale and dolphin meat anymore, and huge surpluses are kept in refrigerated warehouses. The Agency sees their role as protecting the Japanese people from the consequences of overfishing worldwide – if environmentalists shut down whaling and dolphin killing, their reasoning goes, then other Japanese fishing methods and species might be attacked.
The claim that the dolphin hunts are an ancient “tradition” is bogus. While in some areas of Japan dolphins have been hunted in the past, the Taiji drive hunts only began in 1969, according to the town of Taiji’s own official written history.
The whaling staff of the Japan Fisheries Agency has an additional very personal incentive: sale of whale meat and government subsidies to protect whaling pays for their salaries. If whaling and dolphin killing end, these bureaucrats will be out of a job.