It took 17 days for the annual dolphin killing to begin in Taiji, Japan.
On Tuesday, fishing boats headed to sea and herded 12 Risso’s dolphins into the town’s cove, where the marine mammals were quickly dispatched with blades and carved into pieces for sale as meat.
The annual dolphin hunt in Taiji officially began on Sept. 1, but for two and a half weeks, no dolphins were driven into the cove, which remained blue, instead of the deep crimson it turns during the slaughter.
“First pod of 2014–2015 being driven into cove now,” tweeted Cove Guardian volunteers with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday.
“First dolphin murder of the drive hunt season is complete as dead bodies are dragged to Taiji butcher house,” they tweeted an hour later.
Agence France Press confirmed the killings with an official from the local fishermen’s union. “We caught 12 Risso’s dolphins,” he told AFP, adding that the fleet would resume hunting in the coming days.
Meanwhile, anti-drive activists say things are different this year because more protesters are attracting more media attention.
Melissa Sehgal, Sea Shepherd’s senior Cove Guardian leader, attributed the increased news coverage to United States Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, who last January sent a tweet condemning the hunt as inhumane. Sehgal called it “the tweet heard 'round the world.”
“Today there is increased global awareness and criticism of the hunts, proving it is not just a Japanese issue,” Sehgal said in an email. “The public can no longer say they don't know, and clearly they care.”
Louie Psihoyos, director of The Cove, the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary on the slaughter and executive director of the Oceanic Preservation Society, gave credit to Blackfish, an acclaimed documentary about killer whales.
“Because of the success of Blackfish, there’s far more outcry this year than past years, and now the protests are coming from within Japan,” Psihoyos said in an email. “I think we're going to win this battle, but it’s going to take a few years, not months.”
Ric O’Barry, star of The Cove and director of the Dolphin Project at Earth Island Institute, also said the situation has changed for the better.
“There are more and more Japanese people getting involved, or at least trying to get involved,” O’Barry said in an email. “We need to make it easy for them to do that.”
Not all dolphins driven to the cove are butchered. Some are released, and others, usually the young and attractive, are captured and sold to aquariums in Japan and 20 other countries.
A live dolphin can fetch $150,000 or more, whereas a dead one is worth as little as $500. Critics say the capture and sale of dolphins is what keeps the hunt afloat, especially as demand for mercury-riddled whale and dolphin meat appears to be falling in Japan.
Zoos and aquariums have remained reluctant to confront the practice. But on Friday, SeaWorld sent an email to supporters titled “We're opposed to the dolphin drive hunts. See why.” The email included a YouTube video interview with Mike Boos, SeaWorld’s vice president for zoological operations.
"It really is a horrendous practice," said Boos, noting that SeaWorld does not own any animals acquired from dolphin drives.
Words are not enough, critics contend. They argue that SeaWorld and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums should use their influence to stop the dolphin trade that underwrites the killings at Taiji.
"WAZA and their industry hold the key to stopping the captures," O'Barry said. "But they are still missing in action."