The Annual Slaughter Begins in Taiji, but the Japanese Are Shunning Dolphin Meat

The marine mammals are severely contaminated with toxic mercury harmful to humans.

(Photo: Adrian Mylne/Reuters)

Sep 2, 2014· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

The annual dolphin hunt at the cove in Taiji, Japan, began on Monday. For the next six months, hundreds of dolphins will be rounded up and killed, their meat sold in stores and restaurants in Japan and other countries. But butchered dolphins are becoming scarcer on the Japanese market, which is good not only for the dolphins but for public health.

Why? Taiji dolphin products are riddled with mercury.

Seven published studies have found dangerously high concentrations of mercury, a neurotoxin that damages human brain development and the nervous system, in all nine dolphin species. The main source of marine mercury pollution: coal-burning power plants and other heavy industries.

The Environmental Investigative Agency, a London-based nonprofit, purchased nine dolphin products and found that eight of them exceeded Japanese health standards, with average mercury concentrations more than 10 times the limit. One dolphin liver contained mercury concentrations nearly 5,000 times greater than the Japanese government’s limit for daily exposures.

“The consumption of cetacean products contaminated with high levels of persistent organic pollutants and mercury poses a grave health risk to humans,” warned the 2013 EIA report, Toxic Catch. “Ingestion of these toxins have been linked to a range of immunological, cardiovascular and reproductive effects.”

Hair samples taken from residents of Taiji showed that, on average, mercury concentrations among whale eaters were nearly 10 times higher than among non–whale eaters.

Opponents to the hunt are driving that message into Japanese homes.

“When [we] do interviews in Japan we try to use the word 'mercury' in every sentence,” said Louie Psihoyos, director of The Cove, the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary about the Taiji hunt. “That strategy of staying on point about mercury has been working.”

Whether or not it’s due to mercury, one thing is sure: Consumption of dolphin meat is on the decline as the supply out of Taiji dwindles.

Ric O’Barry, the star of The Cove and the director of Earth Island Institute’s Dolphin Project, said that when his group began their campaign against the Taiji slaughter in 2003, about 2,300 dolphins were killed annually. In 2012, that number fell to about 900. Fewer dead dolphins means less mercury contamination among the public.

“My personal feeling is that consumption is slowly reducing, particularly of dolphin and toothed-whale products,” said Clare Perry, a senior campaigner with EIA. “Young people, and in fact many older people, recognize dolphins as wild animals that should be left alone in the oceans. This is my experience from talking to many people over many years in Japan.”

A main factor behind the decline is believed to be growing awareness of high mercury levels in dolphin meat.

Mercury “has been the dolphin hunter's Achilles’ heel,” said Psihoyos. “All dolphin meat, every bit of it, is poison.”

The neurotoxin is also harmful to the dolphins.

Mercury and other toxins “have been linked to increased rates of cancer, increased first calf mortality, immune suppression and a higher susceptibility to infectious disease, [and] are postulated to be a primary factor causing population declines,” according to Toxic Catch.

Mercury is not the only worry. Following the 2011 tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, “it is possible that cetaceans are bio accumulating very high levels of radioactive elements, presenting a severe risk to consumers, as well as a novel threat to cetaceans,” the report said.

With rising awareness of mercury and fewer animals killed, dolphin products in Japan are more difficult to find.

“It’s now much harder to get dolphin meat if you don’t live in the dolphin-hunting area,” said Perry. “We have stopped most of the major supermarkets, plus Amazon, Google, and more recently Rakuten, Japan’s largest Internet retailer, selling whale and dolphin products in Japan.”

As the annual killing begins at Taiji, O’Barry will be there along with Izumi Ishii, a former dolphin hunter who now opposes the hunt.

They plan to visit the town council office to try to persuade local officials that dolphin-watching cruises and other eco-tourism opportunities would be more profitable than the dolphin slaughter.

O’Barry’s team buys and tests dolphin meat so consumers can “make an informed decision as to whether or not they want to buy the tainted product,” he said.

He believes that education about mercury will further reduce demand—and stop the killing.

“There’s no better way to educate the Japanese consumer than to make The Cove available on the Internet in Japan for free,” he said. “There are 27 million people in Japan who have never seen it. They don’t have the information that we take for granted.”