Activists Debate the Results of The Cove Dolphin Hunt

They agree that ending demand for dolphins is crucial, but disagree on the hunt's latest impacts.

A demonstrator participates in a "World Love for Dolphins Day" rally outside the Japanese consulate in New York on Feb. 13. (Photo: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)


Mar 17, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

The dolphin hunt in Taiji, Japan, is over for the season, and while some reports suggest the number of animals caught or killed dropped from last season, not every activist working to stop the hunt agrees on why that might be so—or if it’s even true at all.

The Oscar-winning 2009 documentary The Cove brought this annual dolphin hunt to worldwide attention.

According to a statement from Earth Island Institute, based on data collected by Ceta-Base and Sea Shepherd’s Cove Guardians, hunters slaughtered 751 dolphins of all species in the cove this season, a 10 percent drop from the 834 killed last season, while 80 animals were caught live, a 50 percent drop from last year. The hunters released 457 dolphins back into the ocean, according to these data, compared to last season’s 251 releases.

But Ric O’Barry, director of Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project and star of The Cove, disputed the data that Earth Island used. He believes the number of dead dolphins was likely much higher.

“A great number of dolphins died during the drive” further offshore and far from the view of observers, he said in email, while counts were made only inside the cove.

Additionally, some dolphins “cannot keep up as the rest of the pod as they flee for their lives,” said O’Barry, who travels to Taiji every year to document he hunt. “They simply sink to the bottom, uncounted.”

Many dolphins released from the cove also perish, he said. “All of these are in shock and deeply traumatized, and many are physically dismembered, have broken ribs, internal injuries,” O’Barry said. “Mothers have lost their offspring, and offspring have lost their mothers. A young dolphin cannot survive without its mother.”

Melissa Sehgal, a campaign coordinator for Cove Guardians, said “more global awareness” of the hunt and its consequences have blunted demand for live dolphins. Around 98 unsold dolphins are being held captive at three Taiji facilities and harbor holding pens, Sehgal said. The group believes that number is higher than this season’s live-captured dolphins, suggesting that there is a glut on the world market, she said.

Of bottlenose dolphins, the species most coveted by aquariums, Earth Island stated that hunters drove 108 into the cove this season—an 80 percent drop from last season’s 551 animals. 28 bottlenose dolphins were killed, according to the Ceta-Base/Sea Shepherd data, compared with 144 last season, while 41 were taken alive for sale to aquariums and 39 were released.

Some opponents of the Taiji hunt worry that the falling numbers may indicate that dolphin populations are in trouble. Past hunts may have depleted their numbers, said Sehgal. But it was also possible that dolphins captured and released in past hunts avoided the area, Sehgal said, or struggled harder to avoid capture.

“Dolphins are very intelligent, with great memories,” she said. “They know what is happening to them, and we’re seeing them fight and fight for hours so that the fishermen lose the majority of the pod.”

O’Barry allowed that the size of dolphin populations may have dropped, leaving fewer animals to be captured or killed. But factors other than the hunt might be at work, he said. “Global warming could be a factor,” O’Barry said, “which might cause their food fish to change their migratory route and alter the dolphins’ migratory route.”

Earth Island’s "Save Japan Dolphins" campaign, by contrast, interpreted the drop in both slaughtered and captured animals as a reflection of a shrinking global market for dolphins and dolphin products.

“This suggests [that] sales of dolphin meat are poor due to our campaign to educate the local public about the dangers of mercury in dolphin meat,” Earth Island Institute said in its statement.

While they didn’t see eye to eye on the numbers for this year’s Taiji dolphin take, activists agreed that as long as demand for its spoils endures, the hunt will go on.

“The fact they only caught half as many animals for the live trade this season versus last season suggests they are having fewer buyers,” Mark Palmer, associate director of Earth Island’s marine mammal project, said in an email. But his group plans to continue putting pressure on buyers. “Clearly the captures and killings will continue until demand for live and dead dolphins is eradicated,” he said.

O’Barry plans to travel to Beijing in April to deliver a series of lectures at universities, as well as hosting a public screening of The Cove; all aimed at showing the public the brutality of the dolphin hunt. “The work is about cutting down the demand,” he said, because “China is the main importer of dolphins from Taiji.”

Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project is a member of Participant’s Social Action Network, affiliated with the social action campaign supporting The Cove.