During dolphin drive hunting season, hundreds of dolphins in the southern coastal town of Taiji, Japan, face capture and slaughter at the hands of local fishermen. While some are ensnared to become marine park show toys, many others are killed for their meat, soon to be packaged and sold on supermarket shelves in Japan.
Hunting the cetaceans is a tradition, strongly defended and protected in Japan. Yet international activists and marine mammal groups have fought to end dolphin hunting, in part because of the risk of toxins to humans.
Japan is one of the world’s biggest consumers of dolphin meat, and it is considered a local delicacy in the small town of Taiji, reported The New York Times. In recent years, studies testing the mercury in dolphins have detected excessively high levels of the metal, which can result in neurological damage.
“It’s very much a danger, we think, to the people of Japan and consumers who eat dolphin and whale meat,” said Mark Palmer, associate director of the Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project, in an interview with TakePart.
A study in 2010, conducted by the National Institute for Minamata Disease, found that Taiji residents had far higher average levels of methyl mercury in their hair than people in other areas of Japan—though follow-up tests indicated no ill effects. Activists from the Dolphin Project believe there were problems in the study though, and take issue with the findings. Of the 3,500 residents in the town, 1,137 residents participated in the study, according to the Associated Press.
“Mercury is not the only thing of course—there are heavy levels of PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls] and pesticides—basically a lot of toxic pollutants that build up in the dolphin during their time in the surrounding oceans, like around Japan,” Palmer said.
Dolphins, which live longer than other sea life and are at the top of the marine food chain, absorb more mercury than other commonly eaten fish, such as tuna or tilapia. Exposure to these higher levels of mercury may be dangerous for people, Palmer explained.
Mercury poisoning is particularly a concern for pregnant women and young or unborn children. Exposure in the womb or as a young child can lead to impaired brain and nervous system development, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website.
In recent years — and particularly after the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary The Cove brought to light Japan’s dolphin hunting culture and the fight to save these mammals — dolphin meat consumption in the area has decreased. A few stores no longer carry the delicacy, and some local schools stopped serving whale meat to students, according to The New York Times.
The market for dolphin meat has substantially dropped over the past few years, but the challenge is getting the government to acknowledge and address the problem, Palmer said. In his work, he and other advocates, including Cove star Ric O'Barry, have been urging the government to put labels on the meat or even withdraw it from the market altogether. And the contamination of mercury is not a problem limited to dolphins, but one that extends to the entire ocean ecosystem, he explained.
“It’s affecting the fish we eat, we have to be cautious about eating fish at the high trophic levels, such as swordfish, shark, tuna,” Palmer said. “These are species that are on the market now or in restaurants and they are highly toxic, and if you work at it, you can build up a great deal of mercury in the U.S. just by eating fish.”
Palmer cited examples across the U.S., including dead dolphins in Florida with high levels of pesticides or killer whales in the Pacific Northwest with bodies contaminated by heavy metal toxins.
“It’s not just a Japanese problem, but a worldwide problem of mercury poisoning,” Palmer said.
Mercury, which can accumulate in the bloodstream over time, eventually leaves the human body naturally, but may take more than a year to do so, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
Government officials and native residents see the concerns over mercury in dolphin meat as “overblown,” and cite the ingrained cultural tradition as a reason to continue hunting. Palmer, well-versed in the criticism, argues “tradition is not an excuse...for something that is bad for human health.”
“If it’s poisonous, why on earth would you eat it? Why would you poison yourself on behalf of tradition?” he said.
While the declining demand for dolphin meat indicates the beginning of a shift in people’s choices, the next eight months of hunting season will help determine how much slaughter and consumption occurs in Taiji.
Does the risk of mercury make you stop eating certain kinds of fish? Or do you believe moderation is key? Let us know in the comments.