127 Million Reasons Why the Cove Dolphin Slaughter Continues

As the 2014–2015 killing season in Taiji, Japan, winds down, TakePart catches up with activist Ric O’Barry to talk about the future of the hunt.

Dolphins rounded up for slaughter in Taiji, Japan. (Photo: Courtesy Change.org)

Feb 19, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Salvatore Cardoni holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

Six years have come and gone since The Cove, the 2009 Oscar winner, cemented Ric O’Barry’s status atop the masthead of the global cetacean abolitionist movement.

While the number of dolphins killed and captured at the cove in Taiji, Japan, has been trending downward in the wake of the worldwide attention wrought by the film, O’Barry is far from satisfied, refusing to take solace in such “one-off victories.”

O’Barry, 75, said he will not relent on his Taiji activism until he can stand “on that rocky shore, look out, and know [the drive hunt] is finally over.”

Until that day, O’Barry and his team of volunteers at The Dolphin Project will remain, as they have been since 2003, a highly visible, peaceful presence on the ground in the cove, monitoring and reporting the daily activities of the 30-odd fishers who conduct the killings. “There’s nothing easy about this fight, that’s for sure, and I’m not going anywhere, even at my age,” he said.

With the 2014–2015 Taiji dolphin-hunting season approaching its expected March 1 end, O’Barry spoke with TakePart from his home in Miami, engaging in a wide-ranging discussion on all things cove dolphin, including why the drive hunt still happens and what he believes will cause its downfall.

TakePart: The Cove premiered more than six years ago at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. You’re quoted as saying that when you sat in that theater in Park City, Utah, you were convinced the hunt would be over. And yet, here we are—it’s 2015, and the slaughter and capture of dolphins in Taiji is ongoing. What happened?

Ric O’Barry: Robert Redford told me afterwards it was the only Sundance documentary that he ever saw get a standing ovation. It won the U.S. Audience Award at Sundance and more than 100 awards at other festivals around the world, and at every screening there was a standing ovation. But it wasn’t the fanfare, nice as that was, that the film received that made me predict the hunt’s demise. It was because of how the film pulled the curtain back on the high levels of mercury in dolphin meat. But the hunt goes on. And it goes on because there are 127 million people in Japan who still have never seen the movie.

TakePart: Why haven’t they?

O’Barry: They don’t have access to it. Unfortunately, it never got to the Japanese people for free on the Internet. It went to a distributor, who owns the rights in Japan. And he hasn’t allowed it to be shown in the country for free. We—someone, anyone—would have to buy the rights back from this distributor, because every time someone puts it on the equivalent of their YouTube, it’s taken down immediately. And then there would have to be a campaign, a big one, to drive the Japanese to watch it. Then and only then will the pendulum shift. Why? The mercury angle. I cannot stress this enough.

TakePart: How much are the rights?

O’Barry: $30,000. Relatively speaking, that’s pretty cheap, considering how much we spend trying to stop this slaughter. We’re working on this particular facet of the issue; it’s not dead yet.

TakePart: U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy sent shock waves across the dolphin captive industry in January 2014 by tweeting her opposition to Japan’s drive hunts. You said at the time you wanted to get a meeting with her. Did you? If so, what happened?

O’Barry: I went to the embassy with a delegation including Izumi Ishii, a onetime dolphin hunter in the city of Futo who now runs sightseeing tours for dolphins. Ambassador Kennedy was out of the country. We met with her staff, and they were not very receptive, to say the least. I got the impression she got into trouble for speaking her mind. She was shooting from the hip, I think, and there was never any follow-up from her. Once we get the million signatures on our petition, we’ll go back to her and try again. We’re not giving up on Caroline Kennedy.

TakePart: Last year The Japan Times ran an op-ed condemning the hunt.

O’Barry: The op-ed pointed out what Izumi Ishii’s been saying for years—the hunt is not a centuries-long tradition, as the fishers say. It’s not culture. It started in 1969. It’s not old enough to be cultural or traditional. Even if it was cultural or traditional, there’s no reason for it to continue. It was our culture not to let women have the right to vote. We don’t do that anymore. It was our culture to own slaves. We don’t do that anymore.

TakePart: Eight children from Thailand observed the hunt last month from the ground as youth cove monitors for your organization, The Dolphin Project. Talk to me about the importance of handing the baton to a younger generation.

O’Barry: The best way to bring about change for the common good is by example. We’re hoping these kids set an example and, in fact, are seeing other schoolkids, ordinary citizens, and Japanese citizens coming to Taiji. They’re sort of pioneers in that regard. Traditionally, it’s been activists over there—the Dolphin Project or whoever. But now we’re seeing ordinary people come. I’ve been waiting a long time for this.

TakePart: What’s the state of the proposed marine park in Taiji?

O’Barry: They're moving forward with it. They have some sea pens built. Personally, I don’t think it will work. I don’t think tourists will go. Think about what they’re proposing: watching dolphins jump and do tricks in sea pens in a park, and then nearby fishermen are killing other dolphins. Really? Really?

TakePart: More than a year ago, Taiji fishers captured an albino dolphin that activists subsequently named Angel. Currently, she’s living in a tank in the Taiji Whale Museum. How’s she doing? What’s her fate?

O’Barry: I saw her just last month. I’ve been around dolphins for 50 years, so I can read her body language, and I can tell you her life is extremely boring. She’s trapped in a small tank with two other dolphins of a different species; they don’t socialize well. I’ve been told that she’s for sale for $500,000, and they’re waiting for a buyer. We talked about trying to raise the money and moving her to a sanctuary, but when you get into paying for hostages, dishing out ransom money—well, it doesn’t solve the problem. “Anguish” is the word that comes to mind; you just want to pull your hair out and scream, and that’s where we are with her.

TakePart: What keeps you going year after year?

O’Barry: If I stopped to think about it, I probably wouldn’t be. I really believed when I saw the film at Sundance that it would end the killings. But I also assumed that everyone in Japan would get to see it. They haven’t. They don’t have the information we Westerners take for granted. If you want to solve a problem, you first need to make someone aware of it, and then they can do something. We have to, we must reach the Japanese people—even if they watch the film and only believe the mercury poisoning segments, that’s enough. That will end it.