Taiji: The Captive Connection

A live dolphin is worth up to $200,000 on the open market.

What's wrong with this photograph? (Photo: Photodisc / Getty Images)

In October, I will be traveling to Taiji, Japan to join several cove guardians from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to bare witness to a cruel and barbaric slaughter of dolphins.

I represent a view that dolphins and other wild animals are not ours to trap and export from the wild and into captive confinement. As a conservationist, I vehemently oppose the view that captive industries—with the exclusion of priority breeding facilities and sanctuaries—enable conservation, and I seek to highlight their detriment to the preservation and ongoing welfare of animals in the wild.

Every year across Japan, more than 20,000 dolphins are brutally killed. The deaths are collateral and caused largely in part by marine mammal parks that sponsor drive hunts to obtain wild dolphins for export. In order to cater to these demands, fishermen employed by small unions across Japan, most notably in Taiji, intercept wild dolphin pods and herd and trap the animals into small bays where they are selected for captivity or slaughtered.

MORE: 2012 Taiji Dolphin Slaughter: A Hunting Season in Review

Although categorized as the preservation of historical Japanese culture, drive hunts are motivated externally and financially, primarily by marine corporations like SeaWorld, who prey on dependent fishing unions with the promise of money in return for captured dolphins. A single live dolphin can fetch more than $200,000, and several can be selected for captivity in a day. Percentages of money earned by fishing unions, like the Taiji Fisheries Cooperative, is then divided generously between fishermen.

Present at drive hunts are marine park representatives or marine park trainers, acting on orders to select pristine dolphins and other small cetaceans for export to respective marine parks.

When the selections are complete, a slaughter begins.

The fishermen, who use “banger boats” to frighten and herd dolphins into small bays, take to the unselected remainder of the pod with sharp spears and knives, attacking them in a brutal massacre that turns the once calm waters of coves like Taiji into a thick and bloody red.

Dead dolphins are later mounted on a “gutting barge” and processed into cheap, highly hazardous meat product. Dolphin meat, sometimes labeled as whale meat, is found selectively in areas local to the drive hunts, and is rarely consumed in cities.

In captivity, a dolphin is thought to earn upward of a million dollars per year for its captors, attracting children, families and tourists to participate in dolphin shows and swim-with-dolphins attractions. As of 2012, the U.S. dolphinarium industry was believed to earn between 7 and 10 billion dollars annually.

As a consequence of their captivity, dolphins suffer tremendously and show the same abnormal behaviors exhibited by other self-aware animals kept in confinement. Captive dolphins experience depression, displacement and loneliness, and often fail to build social relationships with other foreign dolphins. Their quality of life is considerably lessened by their captivity, and dolphins in particular become prone to severe aggression, self-mutilation and other psychologically depressed stereotypies, causing injury and in extreme cases, death to themselves or other dolphins. Additionally, dolphin and whale tanks fail to properly mimic their natural habitats and do not provide dolphins or with adequate space. The largest tank on Earth is comparatively less than one ten-thousandth of one percent of the natural range of most dolphins and whales in the wild.

Patrons of aquariums and dolphin shows are often misled by marine parks’ “educational outreach,” often a prerequisite regulation required for the keeping of captive animals. Scientists and biologists, including Dr. Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and faculty affiliate at the Center for Ethics at Emory University, conclude that little evidence is available to support marine park claims that captive animals provide educational and scientific data for conservation.

“No aquarium, no tank in a marineland, however spacious it may be, can begin to duplicate the conditions of the sea,” Jacques Cousteau once said. “And no dolphin who inhabits one of these aquariums or one of those marinelands can ever be considered normal.”

While lucrative captive industries continue to provide financial momentum, wild dolphins in Taiji and larger Japan will continue to lose their lives in barbaric drive hunts.

Pragmatically, however, it is up to patrons of dolphin shows to abstain from supporting marine mammal parks by accepting responsibility that their tickets pay a much larger price—and that price may be the life of a Taiji dolphin.

So don’t buy a ticket.

How are you protesting Taiji, Japan's annual dolphin slaughter? Tell us in the comments.

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Elissa Sursara is an Australian environmental conservationist, filmmaker and wildlife expert working on behalf of endangered species, threatened habitats and animals in crisis. She is a celebrity ambassador for the WWF, Earth Hour and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. @ElissaSursara

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