UPDATE: Jan. 22, 2014—1:44 p.m.
A State Department spokesperson today issued a statement in support of Ambassador Kennedy's tweet. "The U.S. does remain committed to the global moratorium on commercial whaling, and we are concerned with both the sustainability and the humaneness of the Japanese dolphin hunts," said Marie Harf. "We have been very clear that this is our position, and we remain concerned about it. And the ambassador was expressing our view that we’ve made public for a long time."
If dolphins could tweet, many would surely be writing some version of “Thanks @CarolineKennedy for trying to save our lives” over the weekend. On Jan. 17, Kennedy, just two months into her job as the U.S. ambassador to Japan, sent shockwaves around the world by tweeting against the slaughter of dolphins in the cove at Taiji, Japan. “Deeply concerned by inhumaneness of drive hunt dolphin killing,” Kennedy tweeted. “USG (U.S. Government) opposes drive hunt fisheries.”
The tweet, and the buzz it generated among diplomats, celebrities, activists, and media outlets, has thrust Taiji, a fishing town of 2,000 people, back into the international spotlight for the first time in nearly four years. In March 2010, The Cove won an Academy Award in the documentary feature category for first exposing the village’s dolphin secret.
It is not known what prompted Kennedy's message, but roughly eight hours before her tweet, fishermen drove 250 dolphins from the open ocean into the village’s narrow bay, which is bordered by high, rocky cliffs. They remained there, trapped in nets, for four nights, before fishermen slaughtered 40 of them this morning. An additional 52 were selected for sale to aquariums, while the others were released. The cull represents the largest one-day kill at the cove since Nov. 23, 2013, when 54 striped dolphins were slaughtered.
Though welcomed by millions, the ambassador’s missive sparked anger in some corners of Japan, a close U.S. ally. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Monday the hunts are legal and appropriate and that eating the meat is a local custom. "Dolphin fishing is a form of traditional fishing in our country," Suga said. "We will explain Japan's position to the American side."
The pushback stretched from Tokyo to Taiji, where an unnamed fisheries official told Agence France Presse that Kennedy should visit the cove and learn about the new humane way of killing dolphins. "We have switched to a more humane way of butchering them," he said. "We cut the spinal cord so that they don't bleed. We don't butcher them like before.”
Activists refute that, saying the slaughter is still terrifying and painful for the dolphins. "The slaughter process is called pithing, where they hammer a metal rod into the spinal cord of the dolphin,” Melissa Sehgal, senior campaign leader of Sea Shepherd’s Cove Guardian campaign, told 3 News. “These dolphins do not die immediately. It takes up to 20 to 30 minutes for these dolphins to die, where they bleed out, suffocate, or drown from the process of being dragged to the butcher house," she added.
Since 2000, the annual hunt, which runs from September through mid-April, has caused the deaths of roughly 18,000 dolphins. Most are butchered on-site for food (despite extreme mercury concentrations in dolphin meat), while the youngest, cutest ones are spared and sold for up to $125,000 each to marine-mammal facilities in Russia, the Middle East, Latin America, the Caribbean, and East Asia.
Since the Sept. 1 start of the 2013–2014 killing season, 1,187 dolphins from six species have been forced into the notorious inlet, according to the website the Ceta-Base. Of those, 618 were killed, 146 captured, and 422 set free.
While Kennedy's message made the biggest splash, it was hardly issued in a vacuum.
Over the weekend, the U.K. ambassador to Japan, Tim Hitchens, also tweeted, “Taiji Bay Dolphins: the UK opposes all forms of dolphin and porpoise drives; they cause terrible suffering. We regularly raise with Japan.”
Noted personalities also jumped into the fray. In a letter addressed to the Taiji fishermen, Yoko Ono wrote that world anger was jeopardizing her birth country's standing. “Please use political tact and cancel the festival which will be considered by the rest of the world as a sign of Japanese arrogance, ignorance, and love for an act of violence,” she wrote.
The Virgin Group’s Richard Branson, who has not publicly condemned marine-mammal captivity, wrote on the company's website: “Those Japanese people who support the killings in Taiji should realise the damage the slaughter in the cove does to the reputation of their otherwise delightful country.”
Those directly involved in attempting to end the slaughter are also speaking up. Ric O’Barry, star of The Cove and considered by many to be the grandfather of the dolphin abolition movement, appeared briefly on CNN’s "AC360" on Monday and is scheduled to return tonight.
“I want to give her [Ambassador Kennedy] the petition with two and half million signatures calling for the end of the dolphin slaughter,” he wrote in an email, adding that he’s requested a meeting with Kennedy to discuss the matter.
While delighted by Kennedy’s tweet, Louie Psihoyos, director of The Cove, took the long view about ending the slaughter. “This is a movement, like any movement to evolve the human psyche, there are going to be ups and downs, but we are going to win,” he wrote in an email.
The State Department today declined the latest of TakePart's four requests to interview Kennedy on the slaughter since she took office on Nov. 12, and some observers worry Washington officials will force her to retract her powerful tweet.
“We do not have any concrete information but suspect the Obama administration may very well cave to Japanese pressure and rebuke Ambassador Kennedy,” said Mark Palmer of the Earth Island Institute, O’Barry’s activist organization. “We are working to get members of Congress to stand up and support her stance.”
But Kennedy's words cannot be taken back. Her tweet still has tremendous influence. “It reverberated around the world,” Psihoyos wrote. “It shows that compassionate souls can make a difference when they dare to speak up against injustice.”