The Lame Excuse Aquariums Use to Justify Taking Dolphins From ‘The Cove’

In Taiji, Japan, dolphin buyers hide behind separate ‘herding exercises’ for live captures. Critics call it a PR move that doesn’t exonerate financial support of the slaughter.

How many of these dolphins have a friend or family member that was either killed or captured in Taiji, Japan’s notorious killing cove? (Photo: Getty Images)

Sep 12, 2013· 4 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

In recent years, the dolphin drives that corral hundreds of animals into the cove in Taiji, Japan, have been separated into two phases. The first occurs in early September, when bottlenose dolphins are captured alive for sale to aquariums, but none are slaughtered. This is followed by the regular season of massacre, which lasts until April, when a mixture of dolphins and small whales is butchered in the crimson waters of the infamous inlet.

The bottlenose “herding exercise” period was carved out of the regular killing calendar at the request of aquariums and theme parks around the world, which pay top dollar for captured dolphins but don’t want to be tainted by the moral stench of the slaughter. (Although no bottlenose dolphins are killed in September, many other species are.) Previously, buyers would inspect the catch, selecting the youngest and/or cutest animals for purchase, while the rest of the pod was brutally dispatched with spears and knives.

Now, with two separate types of drives, one for bottlenose capture, the other for slaughter, industry leaders believe they can distance themselves from the bloody part, even condemning the fishermen for killing dolphins from one side of their mouths, while still placing orders for new animals from the other.

Many of the dolphins will remain in Japan, where more than half of the nearly 100 aquariums have dolphins on display. Most of the other animals will be flown to facilities in countries such as Dubai, South Korea, China, Iran, Egypt, Vietnam, the Philippines and Turkey.

Staging separate “capture” drives before the bloodshed allows the industry to claim the high ground—and the bragging rights, so to speak—that no animals were harmed in the taking of their dolphins.

But critics say that doesn’t get them off the hook. Activists have long contended that the only thing keeping the bloody “tradition” alive is the infusion of cold, hard cash from Japanese and foreign aquariums, whose representatives descend on the site each season to buy dolphins for their “collections,” at prices reaching $150,000 apiece or more.

Hunting members of the dolphin family (bottlenose, Risso’s, Pacific white-sided, pilot whales, false killer whales, etc.) and putting their meat on the market is no longer a profitable enterprise, on its own. Levels of toxins like mercury and PCBs are so high that demand has plummeted in East Asia, where most of the meat is sold. Meanwhile, the cost of maintaining a fleet of boats and fueling them for six months with diesel has steadily risen.

The math simply isn’t sustainable. The dolphin killers of Taiji would go bankrupt and disappear altogether without the millions of dollars in checks being written by the dolphin collectors. The display industry is still subsidizing the slaughter, no matter when it takes place.

“The blood of the Taiji dolphin drive stains the pool of every dolphinarium in the world,” says Louie Psihoyos, director of the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove. “Just because they don’t slaughter them on the same day does not exonerate them from the atrocities they bankroll.”

In 2009, representatives from the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) proposed a new “Dolphin Management Protocol” for its member group, the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA). “We made real progress in discussions with our Japanese colleagues with regard to a commitment to begin a separate, gentler ‘herding exercise’ as a means of acquisition of wild dolphins for aquariums,” a 2009 WAZA newsletter said. “This stands in contrast to the controversial drive fisheries currently used for acquisition.”

Indeed, WAZA and many member groups condemn the slaughter. “WAZA does not support, and has never supported, the Taiji dolphin fishery in any way,” wrote Gerald Dick, WAZA’s Executive Director, in an email to TakePart. “To the contrary, WAZA has attempted to intervene directly, and has endeavoured to use its influence to bring to an end a practice which surely has no place in modern times.”

But while WAZA claims to be nudging JAZA away from drives altogether, there has clearly been little success.

Then there is the question of offshore captures. In January of this year, Taiji protesters witnessed the roundup of dolphins outside the harbor that leads to the cove. There was no drive.

“On this day something was different. Usually the boats drive the pod into the mouth of the harbor, and then push them towards the cove,” says Terran Baylor, a Cove Monitor and volunteer for the Ric O’Barry Dolphin Project, who witnessed the roundup. His account shows how possible it is that dolphins are being captured in other ways besides drives. “We watched as the nets were dropped just outside the harbor entrance to encompass the large pod of pacific white sided dolphins. Then another skiff full of trainers scurried out and started finding exactly what they wanted. Another net was then dropped and the pod was separated.”

Some dolphins “were being hand-picked, pulled from the water using nets, dragged into the skiffs, and immediately taken to harbor sea pens for captivity,” he says. “Another day in Taiji yielded another method for dolphin captivity.”

Finally, whether they take place in the cove, just outside the harbor, or somewhere else in Japan entirely, “herding exercises” for live capture are inhumane and put animals at risk, critics contend.

“Mortality risk in bottlenose dolphins increases six-fold after a capture from the wild and takes more than a month to return to normal levels,” Vail wrote in a 2010 letter to WAZA, on behalf of WDC and several dozen international organizations opposing live captures. “Stress, sometimes fatal, is an acknowledged threat even using the method considered most humane by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) (purse seine netting). The NMFS acknowledged that ‘animals removed from the wild for permanent maintenance in captivity often represent only a proportion of the total take during a live capture operation.’ In promoting live captures elsewhere in Japan, WAZA is merely shifting the pressure to other dolphin populations.”

Trauma from the chase, Vail says, can cause “acute shock and death, entanglement and suffocation in nets, or more delayed effects that compromise longer term health.”

Cove Monitor Baylor agrees. “Casualties during the capture process always occur,” he says. “We might not see the dolphin die of starvation for several days to weeks for not accepting the dead fish, but we do see dolphins sick and/or dead in the harbor pens very frequently. Irrevocable damage always occurs to the remaining pod members released after the ‘chosen’ are stripped away.”

On September 1, the drive season’s opening day, 18 dolphins were taken alive for captive facilities, witnesses reported.

A few days ago, Ric O’Barry of The Dolphin Project sent an email describing the current scene. “They are out looking for bottlenose,” he said, “Flipper-look a likes. They’ll do this throughout September to create the illusion that the slaughter and the violent captures are not connected. This hocus-pocus was the brainchild WAZA. The captures that we witness are no less violent than the slaughter which will start-up in October.”

No matter when, or where, dolphins are herded up for live capture, “the end result is the same,” Vail wrote, “whole families of dolphins are traumatized, injured, and killed in the process of being driven into the cove, whether they are selected alive and consigned to a slow death in captivity, or slaughtered after a brief confinement in the cove. We would argue that captivity is virtually the same as direct killing: it is a tormented death sentence in either event.”