This Porpoise Slaughter Is Seven Times Bigger Than the Cove’s, So Why Haven’t You Heard About It?

Iwate, Japan, is once again poised to commence the world’s largest cetacean slaughter, which dwarfs the much more famous one in Taiji.

Dall's Porpoise Slaughter in Iwate, Japan: Worse Than the Cove Dolphin Slaughter
A group of Dall's porpoises, identifiable by their characteristic black and white coloring. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, 'Death at Seaworld,' was published in 2012.

Every year for the past decade, volunteers from around the world have made a pilgrimage of protest to Japan, home to the eight-month bloodbath of whale and dolphin slaughter in the cove at Taiji. That hunt began again this month, and all eyes are on the infamous inlet—now more than ever—thanks to the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove.

But even as activists, scientists, and movie stars rail against the brutal massacre of highly social and sentient animals, few campaigners know that some 500 miles to the north, in Iwate Prefecture, an annual slaughter of a beautiful species called Dall’s porpoise has been taking place in numbers that dwarf anything found at the cove.

Operating somewhat under the radar of public opprobrium, Iwate has traditionally staged the largest cetacean hunt on the planet. That is, until the 2011 earthquake and tsunami eviscerated Iwate’s coastal towns and destroyed much of the porpoise-hunting fleet.

For a while, it looked as though the hunt was gone forever, perhaps the only silver lining in a dark cloud of devastation. But now TakePart can exclusively report that operations somehow managed to resume last season, though on a much smaller scale, with a few hundred porpoises taken.

This season, however, from November 2012 to April 2013, the boats were back in greater numbers, killing about 1,200 porpoises, according to Clare Perry of the Environmental Investigation Agency, which is based in London.

(Susan E. Adams/ Flickr)

Nobody knows if the Iwate numbers will rebound to pre-quake levels and once again outstrip Taiji’s death rate, but it’s possible. Before the cataclysm, in 2009–2010 for example, fishermen unseen off the coast hand-harpooned 9,129 Dall’s porpoises, seven times more than the 1,242 dolphins, pilot whales, and false killer whales (all members of the dolphin family) driven into Taiji’s cove and butchered that same season.

In years past, when porpoise meat was used as a substitute for the more expensive whale meat, Iwate’s numbers neared the annual quota of 16,000 porpoises. In 1988, two years after the International Whaling Commission stopped the killing of large whales, more than 40,000 Dall’s were dispatched.

With adult males reaching nearly 500 pounds, Dall’s are the largest of the six species of porpoises, which are not to be confused with dolphins, though they often are. The porpoise family is closer to belugas, evolutionarily speaking, than, say, to bottlenose dolphins. Dall’s porpoises, named after an American naturalist, have gray-to-black bodies with gleaming white stomachs and flanks that flash in the water as they frantically dart about. They look like young, hyperactive killer whales, which many people mistake them for.

In addition to their lopsided death counts, another notable difference between Taiji and Iwate is that, in the latter, no animals are taken alive and sold for tremendous profit to aquariums and theme parks. Porpoises are not as trainable, sleek and acrobatic as dolphins, and relatively few have been put on display over the years.

It’s unlikely that Dall’s porpoises would survive in captivity anyway, says Dr. Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute. “Dall’s are open-water, fast swimmers who are fairly social for porpoises,” she says. “Their physical needs simply cannot be accommodated in captivity.” That may be one reason why this hunt has continued so quietly, for so long. There is no visible drama of parents being killed and calves being ripped from their mother’s side, destined for a tank somewhere.

The hunts are old. “Japan has a long history of coastal hunts of medium-sized cetaceans—small-type coastal whaling, or STCW,” says AWI consultant Sue Fisher. Japan’s “infamous large-scale pelagic [open ocean] hunts of great whales,” she adds, “only really began after World War II, at the suggestion of the USA, to provide protein on a large scale.”

All that great-whale meat drove many coastal hunts out of business. But some endured, not only in Taiji and Iwate, but also Hokkaido, Miyagi, Okinawa, and Chiba, where an additional 537 cetaceans were slain in 2009–2010. In Iwate and elsewhere, men on high-powered vessels head into the open sea, using tethered, handheld harpoons to kill Dall’s, which like to skirt the bow wake of boats.

So where’s the outrage?

To be fair, there has been some, mostly in the United Kingdom, though nothing in Japan and little in the United States.

The Dall’s hunt “is not as visible as Taiji, taking place far out at sea with small boats usually operated by two men. No one witnesses them being killed,” says EIA’s Perry. “The porpoises are landed early in the morning after being kept on ice and the whole process doesn’t have the graphic element of the Taiji hunts. But there has been international attention on the hunts, through the IWC and its Scientific Committee.”

Mark Palmer, of Earth Island Institute’s Dolphin Project, explains that “focusing on one place, Taiji, with the drive hunt, makes sense. Especially if we can make the case that Japanese should not be eating dolphin meat because of mercury contamination and other pollutants, the Iwate and other hunts should also be banned.” The Iwate hunts “are much more difficult to monitor,” he adds. “They are offshore…and scattered among several different harbors.”

That’s not to say that on-the-ground groups like Save Japan Dolphins, founded by The Cove star Ric O’Barry, or Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, founded by Paul Watson, have ignored the Dall’s of Iwate.

In March 2011, “we sent one of our cove monitors, Brian Barnes, up to document the hunt,” O’Barry says. Barnes made the trip with Sea Shepherd’s Scott West and volunteer Tarah Millen, who also wanted to observe the operation. It was one of the few times the two groups had worked together in Japan. Sea Shepherd tends to adopt more aggressive tactics, while O’Barry’s group prefers persuasion and dialogue.

They headed for the port of Otsuchi, a major porpoise processing center in Iwate, where Sea Shepherd volunteers, Marley Daviduk, Carisa Webster and someone by the name of Mike XVX would join them.

Barnes, Millen, and West arrived in Otsuchi on March 10 and “quickly located the 13 boats and the butcher house,” West says. “The three of us made ourselves known by openly photographing the boats and facilities, which brought the expected police attention.”

The following day, after the three other Sea Shepherd volunteers arrived, they conducted more surveillance. “There were no porpoises killed and brought into Otsuchi on March 10 or 11,” West says. But they did see porpoise carcasses, which had been “brought to the large fishermen’s union shed where they were butchered,” behind stacks of plastic crates and out of view.  “The meat then would be distributed to various merchants.”

Then the earth rattled, hard.

“To the hill!” Barnes shouted as they drove through panicked streets amid blaring tsunami sirens. Barnes, who has an emergency-management background, says a small quake the day before prompted him to identify a nearby hill “as the safest vertical shelter for such an event.” Once there, “we watched the entire coastline get completely destroyed,” he says. “We were 170 feet above sea level. I could’ve laid flat on the road and extended my arm over the side of the hill and got my hand wet. We literally just barely survived.”

The same can be said for Iwate’s porpoise hunt.

So what now? Even as the hunting fleet regroups, demand for cetacean meat continues to drop. And Otsuchi is just 120 miles north of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which is “not far from an ocean point of view,” Perry says. “The Japanese government has undertaken some cetacean tests, but to my knowledge not on Dall’s porpoise. I suspect they are not being tested, given the fact that the hunt operates in such a low-profile way. There have been many reports of caesium tests in minke whales, but none for Dall’s.”

Meanwhile, international efforts by the IWC, EIA, AWI, and Whale and Dolphin Conservation, among others, will continue to apply pressure against the Dall’s hunt in the international community. Save Japan Dolphins and Sea Shepherd expect to do the same.

“All along, we have planned, when Taiji shuts down permanently, we would turn attention to the northern hunts,” Barnes says.

Sea Shepherd’s West says Taiji could prove to be a tipping point. “It’s synonymous with the brutal greed that exists in the Japanese government,” he says. “If Japan were to end the Taiji slaughter, there’s a good chance that other such slaughters in Japan would end.”

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