The long, bloody killing season in Taiji, Japan, is finally over. The hunt ended this week, earlier than usual, with a record-low number of dolphins killed in the cove amid intensive opposition from celebrities, activists, and the U.S. ambassador to Japan.
According to Sea Shepherd’s Cove Guardian campaign, the dolphin slaughter area has been cleaned out and the tarps that hide the butchering from public view have come down. The tally is gruesome: An estimated 1,400 dolphins were driven into the cove this season, in drive hunts made famous by the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove. Of those animals, an estimated 834 were killed and 164 taken captive. The rest were released.
This marks a decline from last season’s figures, in which roughly 900 dolphins were killed and 250 captured for aquariums and marine-themed parks. The numbers, disturbing as they are to opponents of the inhumane practice, are well below those reported before the 2009 release of The Cove, when the tiny village’s fishermen killed about 1,600 dolphins a year.
So is the tide turning in Taiji? It’s a difficult question to answer, as the Japanese government and Taiji’s dolphin killers remain determined to carry on in the next season, which will begin on Sept. 1.
Still, this season brought a tidal wave of public outrage and protest outside Japan unseen since the documentary was released in 2009.
The backlash gained mainstream media momentum on Jan. 17, when the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, just two months into her job, tweeted against the slaughter. “Deeply concerned by inhumaneness of drive hunt dolphin killing. USG (U.S. Government) opposes drive hunt fisheries,” she tweeted.
The tweet, which followed the roundup of 250 bottlenose dolphins in the cove, was met with strident condemnation from officials in Tokyo and Taiji but won strong support from the U.S. State Department.
"We are concerned with both the sustainability and the humaneness of the Japanese dolphin hunts," State Department spokesperson Marie Harf told reporters five days after Kennedy’s tweet. "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."
That same week, news broke that a rare albino bottlenose, a female calf that activists dubbed Angel, had been captured in the cove. The calf, whose mother was killed for her meat, captured the hearts of people around the world and gave even more impetus to those opposing the dolphin drives. Angel is being held in a tank at the Taiji Whale Museum, and her fate remains uncertain.
Then, in early February, the English-language newspaper The Japan Times became the first major Japanese media outlet to condemn the annual drives. “The dolphin hunt is an inhumane practice that should be stopped,” the newspaper said plainly. It was a shot across the bow for the Japanese government, putting it on notice that the tides may be changing in the country when it comes to killing dolphins.
But the bad news was not over for Taiji’s fishermen. Just after the Times’ editorial ran, a group of marquee celebrities, spearheaded by music mogul Russell Simmons, penned a letter urging President Obama not to sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal until Japan bans the slaughter and capture of dolphins in Taiji.
"I'm glad our letter to Ambassador Kennedy for the president is making the rounds and will hopefully get our own government to do what they can to help stop the senseless, cruel slaughter of dolphins in Taiji," Simmons told TakePart.
Activists have plenty of work to do. Japan is still involved in killing minke, fin, and humpback whales in the Pacific Ocean and has resumed hunting Dahl’s porpoises some 500 miles north of Taiji in Iwate, an annual slaughter that was temporarily stymied by damage from the earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
For now, Taiji’s cove is peacefully blue, at least until next September, when activists in Japan and around the world will unfailingly take up the banner of outrage once again.