Ric O’Barry Interview: Countdown to ‘Cove’ Killings and a Return to Taiji

‘Everything we’re doing is working, we just have to keep doing it,’ says the lifelong dolphin activist.

In September 2010, activist Ric O'Barry protests against dolphin hunting at the American Embassy in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo: Yoshikaza Tsuno / Getty Images)

Aug 27, 2012· 4 MIN READ
Salvatore Cardoni holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

Saturday, September 1, kicks off the fourth dolphin drive-hunting season in Taiji, Japan since 2009’s Oscar-winning documentary The Cove detailed the tiny fishing village’s horrible secret.

There are a lot of Japanese people opposed to it, and there are people in high places working to stop it—they’re just not as visible as Ric O’Barry.

Fishermen intercept wild dolphin pods and herd and trap the beloved sea creatures into the ill-reputed, narrow inlet. The prime specimens are captured and later sold for upwards of $200,000 to dolphinariums around the world. Machete-wielding fishermen butcher the leftover dolphins to death.

While the kill count has decreased every year—down to an all-time low of roughly 800 dead dolphins in the 2011-2012 season—there is still much work to be done.

No one knows this more than Ric O’Barry, the film’s hero and iconic dolphin freedom fighter.

On September 1, O’Barry and a busload of global activists will conduct a prayer vigil on the shore to honor the dolphins to be killed, and to remember those native villagers killed in last fall’s typhoons.

In the run-up to O’Barry’s visit to Taiji, TakePart caught up with the septuagenarian for a wide-ranging dolphin conversation.

MORE: Mercury Poisoning From Dolphin Meat Remains a Major Concern for 'Cove' Activists

TakePart: You’re a man with your pulse on the political and governmental temperature in Taiji. Is the end of the slaughter in the near or distant future?

Ric O’Barry: I can see measurable results of our continuing to show up. For the last four years, the death rate has dropped because people in Japan are learning that the meat is toxic. And it’s based on supply and demand and they’re not buying it like they were before we showed up. So everything we’re doing is working—we just have to keep doing it.

TakePart: A Taiji dolphin—any dolphin, really—can fetch up to $300,000 on the open market. But who gets that money? The Taiji city? The fishermen? Is the revenue split?

Ric O’Barry: It’s the city and the mayor. The city owns the Taiji Whale Musuem, which is a dolphinarium. And they are the brokers. Nobody knows the details of how much they pay their fishermen for the live dolphins.

TakePart: You’ve often said that this slaughter will only stop when the Japanese people pressure the right officials to do so. But who—or where —is the Japanese Ric O’Barry? Does he or she even exist?

Ric O’Barry: There are some Japanese people who speak out against it. They may not be as active as I am. But you have to understand that their society, their culture is totally different. Something you don’t do is question authority or speak out against the government publically in Japan. You would be ostricized from the community. It is much harder for them to do it than it is for us to do it. But there are a lot of Japanese people opposed to it, and there are people in high places working to stop it—they’re just not as visible as Ric O’Barry.

TakePart: It’s my understanding that at one point you and your organization offered to pay the Taiji fishermen not to fish—essentially buying them out. Have you entertained the possibility of re-offering them the same solution?

Ric O’Barry: They haven’t accepted that. In other words, we said: “We’ll give you the same amount of money you would make if you leave the boats tied up for one year.” And they said it’s not about money. They said it’s about pest control. A big part of it is these captures. If the captures stopped, it wouldn’t be economically viable. They had to build two police stations right at the cove now. This cost millions of dollars. It is costing them more to keep the police there than they make. That’s really crazy. It’s kind of like whaling. Whaling doesn’t make any economic sense whatsoever. They lose millions and millions of dollars and the victims are the ones that pay for this.

TakePart: Is it a cultural thing, where they simply don’t want foreigners telling them what to do?

Ric O’Barry: That’s part of it. But the dolphin drive hasn’t been going on that long. Whaling has, but the dolphin drive has just been going on since the 1960s. But it’s not a cultural thing. That’s a big lie. It simply isn’t true. There are less than 50 men in Taiji who are doing this. They are part of one union, but they’re very powerful.

TakePart: In May, the Taiji city council announced plans to build a marine mammal park where visitors can swim with Minke whales and bottlenose dolphins? Is there an update on this?

Ric O’Barry: It’s absolutely ridiculous and I don’t believe it’s going to happen. I don’t know anything new about it, but I’ll know when I get there next week.

TakePart: What is the Japanese anthithesis of Taiji? Is there a city or town in the country that protects and save dolphins?

Ric O’Barry: Absolutely. There is, and I’ve spent a lot of my time there. It’s called Mikura Island. There are several islands—12 to 15 of them—but they are part of Tokyo, about 120 miles south of Tokyo. There are about 300 dolphins there. The people know them by name. They protect them. People swim with wild dolphins there. It is the exact opposite of Taiji.

TakePart: Talk to me about reformed dolphin hunter Isumi Isshi, if you can.

Ric O’Barry: He and his forefathers were all dolphin hunters in Futo, Japan. Today, Mr. Isshi has the same boat that he was using to kill dolphins—it looks exactly like the ones on Taiji—except its rigged now for dolphin watching. He’s a friend of mine. I’ve been there several times. I take people out on his boat. I encourage Japanese people to go dolphin watching. He represents a lot of hope for the future. He’s a guy who used to drive them in and slit their throat. He told me one day that the dolphin was actually crying. He said he looked into this dolphin’s eye and had this big moment and dropped the knife and stopped doing it.

TakePart: You’ve been at the forefront of the dolphin-saving movement for 40 plus years. What is your biggest personal victory?

Ric O’Barry: Solomon Islands. As shown in Blood Dolphins, they’ve been killing dolphins as long as they have been in Taiji. And they kill about the same number. And we showed up not to tell them what to do and act like a bunch of cultural imperialists…we went there to listen and learned that it was not sustainable and we offered to support alternatives. And they went for it. And they haven’t killed any dolphins since. It’s been two years now. We still support them. We built them a lumber mill and so forth. They are just looking for work, looking for a job.

Will you be protesting Taiji's annual dolphin slaughter? If so, how? Tell us in the comments.