Ready, Set, Slaughter: Dolphin Killings to Begin in Infamous Cove

Sunday, September 1 marks the start of Taiji, Japan’s annual dolphin slaughter, made famous by the Oscar-winning documentary ‘The Cove.’

Cove Dolphin Slaughter to Begin Again 2013

Former Guns ’N Roses drummer Matt Sorum (L) and dolphin activist Ric O’Barry (R) protest Taiji, Japan’s annual dolphin slaughter by holding iPads that depict footage of the bloody killings during a flash-mob appearance on Friday, August 29, in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo: Lincoln O’Barry)

David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, 'Death at Seaworld,' was published in 2012.

It’s that wretched time of year again.

The killing season opens Sunday, September 1 in Taiji, heralding a six-month orgy of mass terror, suffering, kidnapping, bloodshed and slaughter inflicted upon hapless pods of whales and dolphins unlucky enough to swim near the coast of Japan’s Kuman-nada Sea.

Herded by boats and terrifying banger poles into an inlet popularized by the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, the stressed-out animals will be separated: younger, cuter ones will be sold to theme parks to spend a life in “show business.” The rest will be impaled, speared, sliced, and gutted in the crimson-red waters, destined for East-Asian dining tables.

Watching a good documentary can be more than $10 and some popcorn; it can be a weapon of mass construction.

For ten years, Ric O’Barry, star of The Cove, and his wife Helene have journeyed to Taiji every September 1 to kick off a long, often depressing and chilly season of volunteers witnessing, monitoring, protesting, and—something that gets more difficult each year—trying to attract media attention.

After the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, most Japanese and international media have focused on urgent issues far to the north. “One journalist at AP told us she’s not coming back until we find radiation in the cove,” O’Barry says, with sadness, before boarding a Tokyo flight. “It gets harder and harder when Fukushima is really the only issue over there right now.”

If The Cove pointed a world spotlight on the slaughter, Fukushima turned it away. Now activists around the world are coming up with new, attention-grabbing events the media simply cannot ignore, including simultaneous global demonstrations, Japanese flash mobs, and a healthy heaping of rock ’n’ roll.

“Anything we can do” will be done, O’Barry vows. “We have to keep coming up with creative ways to keep the issue alive.”

That’s why on this trip, “Ric will be accompanied by Matt Sorum, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, a founding member and drummer of Guns N’ Roses and founder of the supergroup Kings of Chaos,” says Mark Palmer, Associate Director at Earth Island Institute.

“Matt is also the Musical Director for ‘Tokyo Celebrates the Dolphin,’ an upcoming event to generate much-needed positive international publicity regarding Japan’s relationship with dolphins,” Palmer continues. “The concert and celebration will be about the relationship the people of the Tokyo islands have with wild and free dolphins. The local people have adopted dolphins and given them names.” One island even made their dolphins official citizens.

“We’re trying to balance this publicity out, so it’s not all negative,” says O’Barry. Most people in Japan “are the opposite of Taiji,” he says, “We want to celebrate the relations they have with dolphins.” Meanwhile, the Kings of Chaos, “can fill stadiums around the world. A concert in Tokyo with 40,000-to-60 000 young people in the same building (in protest of killing dolphins) is hopefully going to get a lot of attention, and keep attention on the cove.”

A concert date has not been set, but September 1 will be a red-letter day in Taiji, and around the globe. “We have about 50 people who will show up at the cove, but we also have 100 cities around the world where people will be protesting at Japanese embassies and consular offices,” O’Barry says. “People can go to Save Japan Dolphins to get the information and show up at one of these demonstrations.”

Activists will also be showing up, spontaneously, at freshly planned “flash mob actions,” over the coming weekend,” says Palmer. “We’ve been invited by a Japanese activist group called Flippers Japan” to a flash mob in Tokyo on Friday and a similar Taiji event on Sunday.

Credit for much of the ongoing action belongs to The Cove, which “had an enormous influence on many issues,” says the film’s director Louie Psihoyos. “In Japan we’ve helped reduce demand for dolphin meat by about two-thirds, saving thousands of dolphins and porpoises each year. When our team arrived in Japan the government was force-feeding dolphin meat with toxic loads of mercury to thousands of schoolchildren, and had a plan to expand this scheme to unsuspecting communities all over the country. That’s not happening anymore.”

The company distributed thousands of pamphlets “to the primary dolphin hunting communities warning them of toxic dolphin meat,” he adds. “and sent suitcases of translated DVDs of The Cove all over the country.” Today, several countries “are banning the import of wild dolphins and many airlines (refuse) their planes for trafficking dolphins,” Psihoyos says. “Watching a good documentary can be more than $10 and some popcorn; it can be a weapon of mass construction.”

Greater awareness, about mercury and about what happens at the cove, has driven down demand, and thus the total number of animals killed annually. “In 2004, when our Save Japan Dolphins Campaign began, about 1,600 dolphins were killed that season. Last season about 900 were killed,” Palmer says. The government authorizes about 2,000 animals annually, “so the hunt itself is not doing well.”

But this silver lining has a very dark cloud: As demand for dead dolphins dropped, demand for live ones skyrocketed, with each fetching $150,000 or more. This, critics say, is the economic underpinning of the entire enterprise. Remove it, and the business collapses.

According to Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), although numbers killed each season fluctuate, last season saw the lowest number of animals killed in 10 years, but a record high number of animals, 247, captured for public display. In the prior season, only 68 were taken alive.

And there is more bad news. Whale-and-dolphin drives are still thriving in other countries, especially the Solomon Islands, in the south Pacific and the Faroe Islands, in the north Atlantic.

“I don’t think anyone has a handle on total numbers in the Solomon’s,” says WDC’s Courtney Vail. “The average take there is around 700 dolphins.” And though there was “a brief cessation” brokered by Earth Island officials, this year “nearly 1,700 dolphins were taken, many more than are killed in Taiji annually.”

“We’ve had some success funding (villages) for alternatives to killing dolphins,” Palmer explains. “One of the tribes got greedy and threw out our agreement and began killing dolphins again. But other villages are sticking by the agreement.” Unconfirmed reports claim the animals are suffocated with mud stuffed down their blowholes.

In the Faroes, meanwhile, people have survived for centuries through hunting whales. But in the 21st century, “the tradition persists, not only because some people there like to eat whales, but because they enjoy killing them,” Helene O’Barry recently wrote.

Here, “the hunts involve the larger community that participate in the round-up and killing in full view of observers, bystanders, and the Internet,” says Vail. “Whales are dispatched in large groups, as they are herded to shore en-masse, in a chaotic scramble to kill.” So far this year, more than 1,000 animals have perished.

Despite all the protests, media scrutiny, legal challenges, diplomatic force and simple attempts at friendly dissuasion, the killing goes on, in Japan and elsewhere. It seems as though no amount of outside pressure can stop it.

“It has yet to change the resolve of the hunters and the governments that support them. Diplomacy and friendship have not yet succeeded,” laments Vail, who then adds: “All cruel customs, no matter how deeply rooted in tradition, should be exposed.”

O’Barry agrees. “We are trying to get the Japanese people to take ownership of this issue; they are the only ones who can stop this dolphin slaughter. Westerners can’t do it,” he says. “That’s why we’ve been looking for the past ten years for ways to work with them, not against them.”

Like any nationality, Japanese dislike foreigners telling them how to behave. “Many Japanese react with defiance,” says Palmer, “but many more secretly agree with us.” Still, standing up against this issue “is very hard for Japanese,” who risk their jobs, and get harassed and investigated “in a very heavy-handed way.” But, he adds, “word is getting around, slowly.”

O’Barry predicts the slaughter, though probably not live captures, will end soon. The killing is unsustainable, he says, morally and economically. After all, “The vast majority of people in Taiji are not involved in killing dolphins,” he notes, “less than 50 men are giving the entire country a bad name.”

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