Each year beginning Sept. 1, around 30 fishermen from the village of Taiji, Japan lure hapless pods of whales and dolphins from the open ocean into a tiny inlet, where they weed out the younger, cuter ones worth selling to aquariums in Japan and around the world. The rest are harpooned and butchered, their mercury-laden meat destined for East Asian dining tables.
This annual dolphin hunt was made infamous by the Oscar-winning 2009 documentary The Cove, starring Ric O’Barry, the godfather of the cetacean abolitionist movement, who is now in his 10th season of protesting the slaughter and spreading the word around the world—and more important, in Japan—about the cruel killings and captures.
Earlier this month TakePart exchanged emails with O’Barry, who is in Taiji, for his assessment of the situation at the notorious killing cove as 2013 draws to an end.
The conversation covers hopeful downward trends in the number of killings, increased awareness in Japan of the slaughter, the high mercury rates in dolphin meat, and a rock and roll musical extravaganza that will rock Tokyo and bring the debate to a whole new level in Japan, especially among young people.
TakePart: Can you give us a brief roundup of the killings and captures so far this season in the cove?
Ric O’Barry: Our sense is the numbers are a bit lower than last year. The dolphin hunters went 28 days without catching any dolphins. Our on-site monitors were very pleased, but over Thanksgiving week there were several very brutal roundups and massive slaughter. The hunters are trying to make up for lost time.
Are we seeing any trend in the numbers over time?
Yes, downward. When I first started our campaign in 2004, about 1,600 dolphins were killed in Taiji. Last year, about 900 were killed. We are hoping, of course, that even fewer will be killed this year. But the number of dolphins caught last year for captivity was tremendous: about 250. The season before, only 50 dolphins were captured for captivity.
How are the Japanese getting involved in this issue?
Our work is all about working with the Japanese people, especially activists. That tactic is different than other Westerners in Taiji. Our Japanese activist friends are talking with all Japanese tourists who come to the cove or the Taiji Whale Museum, and they are posting on social media in Japan.
From here, it seems there’s been less-than-normal coverage in the mainstream news or even social media of the drives. Do you agree?
There’s been a fair amount of coverage about our demonstrations in Tokyo and Taiji, especially an Associated Press story that got picked up by several hundred websites. Our cove monitors are posting daily updates in English, Spanish, and Japanese on our Dolphin Project Facebook page.
But the story is shifting. There’s a lot of attention on the captivity issue, thanks to the documentary Blackfish and your book [Death at SeaWorld]. We plan to take advantage of that to continue putting pressure on the captivity industry for their role in subsidizing the Taiji slaughter.
Still, the situation with the media is very much like Haiti. The international media was totally embedded in Haiti after the earthquake, but they’ve moved on. Keeping Taiji in the news is quite challenging. We have to keep pulling a rabbit out of our hat.
Japanese dolphin meat is contaminated with mercury and other toxins. How well is that message being disseminated in Japan, and what impact is it having?
Word has gotten out. Not so much in the mainstream media, which continue to push the government line that there’s no need to worry about mercury. But we’ve gotten out word around Taiji and other nearby towns. Most people buying dolphin meat now are older and used to eating it, but the younger people are not touching it. Demand for whale meat is also falling precipitously. Eighty percent of Japan's protein comes from the sea, and its citizens generally have 10 times the amount of mercury found in other countries—while the people of Taiji have 10 times the amount of mercury found in a typical Japanese citizen.
What about radioactive contaminants from Fukushima?
A couple of Minke whales from the North Pacific showed some traces of radioactivity, but that’s all that’s been detected so far. We continue to try to test dolphin meat, but it’s very expensive. The government is presumably doing tests, but they are not making their results public. No surprise there.
What impact might Ambassador Caroline Kennedy have?
We sent a letter to the ambassador earlier this month requesting a meeting. We have a petition signed by more than 2 million people asking the American embassy to get involved in this urgent issue and will present it to her. We’re hoping to talk to her about what the Obama administration might do. She is close to Secretary of State John Kerry, and I talked to Robert Kennedy Jr. about the issue when The Cove came out. So we are hopeful the politics will turn our way.
Earlier, we reported on the massive Dahl’s porpoise slaughter in Iwate. Are you working on that?
To a certain extent. The Dahl's hunt was temporarily cut back substantially due to damage to boats and harbors from the tsunami. Unfortunately, some of the hunters are back in business. Our work to warn the public about mercury contamination is as critical with Dahl's porpoises as with dolphin species. We’ll have to focus on the Dahl's hunts when we can, but our priority is still to stop the hunts in Taiji. When the dolphin slaughter ends in the Cove it will be mercury that shuts it down. Iwate and other dolphin hunts would have to shut down for the same reason.
What can you tell me about the concert planned for Tokyo?
[Former Guns N' Roses drummer] Matt Sorum, Slash, and other rock superstars just did a great concert for us in Los Angeles, joined by Juliette Lewis and Billy Ray Cyrus, among others. We plan to bring the concert to Tokyo to celebrate dolphins. We want to show there’s a great alternative to slaughter. "Tokyo Celebrates the Dolphin" is a way to get young Japanese people involved. Music unites people, especially rock and roll. Matt Sorum is the driving force behind this effort and leader of the Kings of Chaos. He and my son Lincoln are producing the event, and we plan to have Japanese rock stars join us. This is another excellent example of us working with the Japanese people, not against them.