Cove 101: A Primer on Taiji, Japan's Senseless Dolphin Slaughter

Since 2009, fewer and fewer dolphins have died each year at the deadly 'Cove'.

Activists use signage and costume to stand up for Taiji, Japan's dolphins. (Photo: Ted Aljibe / Getty Images)
Sal holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

July 31, 2009.

This was the release date for The Cove, the gripping and gut-wrenching documentary that ripped the curtain back on one of the animal kingdom’s deadliest, saddest secrets: Each year, beginning on September 1, a group of fishermen in the tiny coastal village of Taiji, Japan, round up and systematically slaughter thousands of dolphins.

For hundreds of thousands of devotees—today, The Cove’s Facebook page has 611,000 ardent fans—the film rapidly evolved from a movie into a movement. Fans became activists. And in the weeks and months after the film’s release, those newly christened objectors spoke loud and clear in one unifying voice: Have a heart Japan; end the killings.

Certainly the unwavering international exposure on the slaughter of a beloved sea creature would put the bloody practice out to pasture, right? Wrong. Three years later, here we are: staring down the harpoon blade of another drive hunting season.

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To be sure, definitive progress has been made. The kill-count has decreased every year since 2009. Just shy of 800 dolphins were bludgeoned to death during the 2012-2013 hunting season, roughly 400 fewer than during the previous year, when the death count was 1,190. In the 2009-2010 season, 1,336 dolphins died. In 2008-2009, 1,484 dolphins lost their lives.

Beyond the sounds-clever-when-you-say-it-aloud trite analysis of The Cove as 'half thriller, half expose' or 'The Bourne Identity underwater,' the true draw of the film is that the atrocity is happening now, and can therefore be stopped now.

No one person embodies this deep-seeded need to end the cetacean carnage more than 72-year old Ric O’Barry, the movie and movement’s penitent driving engine. 

The founding father of the dolphin abolitionist movement can’t stop shepherding the movie’s message. If the future AP wire headline “Taiji Ends Dolphin Slaughter” isn’t enough motivation to keep the white-haired activist going into his seventies, the guilt surely is.

In the 1960s, O’Barry worked for the Miami Seaquarium, and part of his job involved capturing and training dolphins for the popular television show Flipper.

After Kathy, the dolphin that played Flipper the most, committed suicide in his arms, O’Barry had an epiphany: forcing one of the smartest mammals on the planet into indentured servitude in theme parks like the Miami Seaquarium and SeaWorld was wrong and needed to end.

Save Japan Dolphins picks up O’Barry’s transformation from there:

From that moment on, O’Barry knew what he must do with his life. On the first Earth Day, 1970, he founded the Dolphin Project, dedicated to freeing captive dolphins who were viable candidates and educating people throughout the world to the plight of dolphins in captivity.

He launched a searing campaign against the multi-billion dollar dolphin captive industry, telling the public what was really going on at dolphin shows and urging people not to buy tickets to see any dolphins play the fool.

In the open waters of the ocean, a free, wild dolphin can live up to 50 years. A caged dolphin, on the other hand, circles its tiny concrete chlorinated box-like tank as a de facto circus clown without purpose—often to the point of depression and suicide. Cash-cow theme parks like SeaWorld sell this as a form of marine mammal education to the public.

O’Barry has personally rescued and released more than 25 captive dolphins, but that direct, hands-on tactic is not possible in Taiji.

If he or any of his lieutenants actually tried to physically interfere with the slaughter, Taiji police would arrest them within minutes. And that doesn’t even take into account the near logistical impossibility it would be to impede the fishermen. During Taiji's “drive hunt,” a process known in Japanese as “oikomi,” around 50 fishermen operating from large boats herd dolphins into the shallows of the cove. The best specimens are captured and sold to aquariums around the world. The rest are harpooned and butchered, with their toxic meat being sold to supermarkets. 

The dolphin-hunting season runs from September through roughly April—though in 2012 it ended in mid-March—with Taiji fishermen killing or capturing a fraction of the country’s annual 20,000-dolphin quota. Since the film’s release, residents and fishermen in the town of 3,500 have stood firm in the face of international pressure, arguing the hunt is a traditional rite that can be traced back 50 years in Taiji.

By now you must be asking yourself: “Isn’t it illegal to kill dolphins?”

It is, but with any rule, there are fine print exceptions.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was established in 1946 to regulate great whale hunts, but no international body regulates small cetacean hunts. (Dolphins are categorized as small cetaceans). Amid concern certain species had been hunted to the precipice of extinction, the IWC banned commercial whaling in 1986. Japan soon resumed hunting under an IWC clause that allows for the killing of whales under the guise of scientific research.

Legally and logistically then, O’Barry and his team have no choice but to combat the dolphin slaughter with peaceful protests and well-timed media blitzes aimed at educating the 127 million Japanese citizens, the overwhelming majority of whom have not seen the film. "Getting them to see it is a challenge," O'Barry told me in January. "That's been the hard thing because the media is owned and run by the government."

And then there's O'Barry's plan to appeal to the survival instincts of the Japanese people. This year, he will double-down on the campaign to inform the Japanese people about the ills of eating dolphin meat—a delicacy in parts of Asia, including Japan—which contains toxic levels of mercury.

On September 1, O'Barry and his crew from Save Japan Dolphins will line the street in front of the cove with signs in Japanese warning the Japanse people that "Dolphin Meat is Poisoned by Mercury."

What will you be doing to stop the 2012-2013 Taiji dolphin slaughter?

'Cove' Star Ric O'Barry's 2012 Resolution: End Taiji Slaughter

2012 Taiji Dolphin Slaughter: A Hunting Season in Review

Hong Kong Airlines Brags About Shipping Kidnapped Cove Dolphins

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