This Year’s ‘Cove’ Slaughter Is Almost Over, but the Death Toll Is Steep

To date, up to 899 dolphins have been slaughtered in Taiji, Japan, this hunting season.
Dolphins are seen at the notorious Cove in Taiji, Japan. (Photos: Courtesy Save Japan Dolphins)
Mar 4, 2013· 4 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

The dolphin-hunting season in Taiji, Japan, an unnecessary annual bloodbath if ever there was one, is thankfully all but over.

Japan's dolphin hunt runs from September through the end of February, although the pilot whale drive season continues through April. Out in the open ocean, meanwhile, Japanese whale hunting is winding down in the South Pacific, although the harpooning of other cetaceans, (mostly Dall's porpoises) is now underway.

"We were told by our Japanese contacts that the reason for the release was that the slaughterhouse freezers in Taiji were full. Again, this strongly suggests the hunters cannot sell the meat."

As depicted in the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, fishermen typically lure between 1,500 and 2,000 dolphins into the shallows of the cove and separate out the ones deemed worthy of selling to an aquarium. The rest are harpooned and slaughtered, their meat sold in supermarkets.

Today, the notorious inlet stands free of dolphin blood and Taiji fishermen are dismantling their “butchering garages.” Still, activists around the world are bracing for the possibility of more pilot whales being driven to their doom in the bloody waters.

TakePart recently chatted with Mark Palmer, the Associate Director of Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project, about the 2012-2013 dolphin hunting season in Taiji.

TakePart: Now that the killing season is winding down, what can you tell us about this year? How do the numbers of dolphins killed and taken differ from other years?

We don't have a final count on the number of dolphins so far, but it appears that the number of dolphins killed this season is about 899 total dolphins. They did kill a larger number of large dolphins, such as pilot whales and Risso's dolphins, so their actual meat intake is likely higher than last season.

What was unusual is the number of dolphins released, several hundred, and the number of dolphins kept for captivity, estimated at about 247 as of February 20. Last season, about 50 were taken for captivity, which was a lot then.

Why do you think that is?

We believe the Taiji dolphin hunters continue to have trouble selling dolphin meat. More and more Japanese are hearing about mercury contamination of dolphin meat, via The Cove documentary, our campaign in Japan and the efforts of other organizations. Last season and this season, the hunters failed to fulfill their quotas of 1,900 dolphins, killing less than half that amount. Early in the season, dolphin hunters released an unprecedented number of pilot whales. We were told by our Japanese contacts that the reason for the release was that the slaughterhouse freezers in Taiji were full. Again, this strongly suggests the hunters cannot sell the meat.

As to the increase in dolphins captured for captivity, we are not sure what this means. One possibility is that there is a surge in orders for captive dolphins in China, Japan, and other countries of the Far East that have aquariums. Another is that the fishermen may be thinking of ending the hunts, so they are stocking up on captives to sell over the next few years?

What was the worst day so far this year in terms of numbers?

I'm not sure there were any good days! Certainly, early in the season, they kept a large number of pilot whales in nets in the cove for days on end. They would slaughter some on some days, and on some days, they would take some for captivity. In the meantime, the rest were left under enormous stress for days. It was truly shocking that several hundred pilot whales would be kept under those conditions, awaiting their fates, and knowing their fates. When some were released at the end of the period, we're not sure how many would really survive after days of stress lik that.

What was the most heart-wrenching story you heard this year?

For me personally, a photo really captured the heart-rending horror. I see a lot of really horrible photos, but this one really hit me. It was a photo by our Cove Monitor Terran Baylor of two bottlenose dolphins entwined together, resting head-to-head, in the nets, waiting to be killed. It is hard for me to look at that photo—I'm sure they were a mother and her child before the axe fell.

In Taiji, Japan, a mother dolphin clings to its calf moments before the mother was likely slaughtered and the calf was probably captured for a life in captivity.

Is demand for live dolphins growing from public display and swim-with facilities?

Yes, especially in the Far East such as China and Japan itself. Japan has 51 dolphinariums, each of which requires dead dolphins to be replaced. We are also seeing growth in the Middle East and the Caribbean. They are very popular destinations for tourists.

What about demand for dolphin meat? Hasn’t that market collapsed, and if so, why is the hunt still going on?

We think the overall market is very low indeed. Reports from Japan are that 5,000 tons of whale meat is being kept in freezers because the government cannot sell it. Dolphin meat is even less attractive than whale meat, from a toxic standpoint. We have heard rumors that because the market is down, the dolphin hunts will cease in the near future. But of course, we cannot rely on that and need to keep the pressure on. (But) the more Japanese consumers learn, the sooner the hunts will end.

What is your opinion on SeaWorld San Antonio currently trying to import a female dolphin from a theme park in Japan—is she or her mother related to the hunt?

According to the Federal Register notice, the dolphin was born in captivity. Almost certainly its mother was caught in the Taiji hunts. SeaWorld is again trying to import dolphins caught in the hunts—as SeaWorld has done in the past—but using the captive birth to claim there was no inhumane capture of that particular dolphin, in defiance of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

What about the effort to lobby the IOC against considering Tokyo as a host city for the 2020 Olympic Games, unless Japan finally stops the dolphin drives once and for all?

Generally, Earth Island supports all efforts to bring attention to the dolphin hunts. But we recognize that the vast majority of Japanese are not involved in the dolphin hunts. We support efforts that work with the Japanese people, not against them.

What else can you tell us, and what’s next for your cause?

We will be working on a series of ideas for next season, and continuing to explore ways to get the word out in the meantime in Japan that the dolphin meat is tainted with mercury. There is a small grassroots movement of Japanese activists who are protesting against the dolphin and whale hunts in Japan, and we will provide them with support. They have held two demonstrations so far in Tokyo. We are planning some surprises around September (the beginning of the hunt season) in Japan, so stay tuned to our blogs at Save Japan Dolphins.