Opinion: Beneath the Surface, a Flawed Body Count

It’s too early to draw any conclusions about this year’s Cove hunt.

(Photo: DolphinProject.com)

By Richard O’Barry

With the end of the 2014–15 Taiji dolphin drive season in Japan, there has been much speculation offered over the numbers and species of dolphins captured.

In order to stop the Taiji dolphin drives, this speculation must end. Inaccuracies do not help those fighting the cause, and it is a great disservice to the animals that are killed or captured in Taiji’s infamous Cove.

The number of bottlenose dolphins (considered the prime target for captive marine parks) captured this year was lower and more dolphins were released, but to attempt to assess why is a fool’s errand. Nobody knows, and so I strongly disagree with those who are speculating. It is too early to draw any conclusions.

Yes, “maybe” the dolphin hunters have depleted dolphin populations to a point where captures automatically go down dramatically. But we can’t know this because there have been no studies or research conducted on dolphin populations in those areas.

It is also possible that the demand for show-quality dolphins has not been as high this year. Or perhaps, simply, there were not enough show-quality dolphins present in the pods driven into the Cove. Obviously, with fewer dolphins captured, fewer dolphins will be deemed suitable for public display.

Another possibility worth considering is why the hunters couldn’t locate the dolphin pods. This could be down to the availability of food fish or global warming, which could play a factor in forcing food fish to change their migratory route and the dolphins to alter their migratory route in response. But the fact is, we don’t know any of this for sure at this point.

Speculating on this year’s numbers, then, is unwise. Not even the Japanese Fisheries Agency has the correct numbers because when the killing numbers are reported by the untrained eye, they simply cannot be trusted.

In more than 50 years of observing dolphins, both in captivity and in the wild, my mind’s eye sees below the surface. I am acutely aware of the untold numbers—the very young, the very old, and the sick—who cannot keep up with the rest of the pod as they flee for their lives. Drives may take hours, and dolphins who lose their lives simply sink to the bottom, uncounted. There are dolphins who are fatally injured. They suffer broken ribs, some abort their babies, and others die from heart failure. Animals who die of capture shock, or stress-related issues such as capture myopathy, are never seen or included in the body count.

The reality is, numbers given by an untrained observer, the dolphin hunters or the fisheries agency, cannot be trusted and are a loose estimation at best. A great number of dolphins have already died during the drive itself, yet the Cove is the only place where dolphins are counted.

The dolphins released do not go on to live happy lives. Even if they survive the shock of capture, they must endure the sorting process and physically witnessing their pod slaughtered in front of them. Mothers lose offspring, and offspring lose their mothers, and a young dolphin cannot survive without its mother.

Research has shown that a pod of bottlenose dolphins is kept together by a few key pod members. When these members are removed from the pod, the cohesion of the group falls apart. I am convinced that this happens many times after the selection process and after rejected dolphins are released. Most of this devastation occurs beneath the surface of the water, so few people even think about it. The killings and live-captures have a huge impact on the entire pod.

When I worked as a diver on the Miami Seaquarium capture boat back in the 1960s, we captured dolphins in Biscayne Bay. The method wasn’t much different than what the Taiji dolphin hunters are doing. We would round them up with a net that was half a mile long. It had a cork line on top to keep it afloat and a lead line on the bottom. When we captured six dolphins and hauled them aboard the boat, the captain would call the Florida Department of National Resources by radio phone and call the numbers in—“We took six,” I would hear him say—and he really believed it. So did the FDNR.

Being the only diver in the crew, I alone could see the real body count below the surface in graphic detail. I would swim along the lead line as the net was being hauled in to keep it from getting snagged in the coral. Dolphins, sawfish, turtles, sharks, and of course a lot of coral were destroyed too. But the official body count was only the six dolphins who were on the deck of the capture boat.

This flawed body count went on for years. I think about that every time I see a dolphin capture going down in Taiji. In the hundreds of dolphin captures I have witnessed during the last 12 years in Taiji, I never once saw a diver get into the water to check the bottom outside the Cove.

There are two types of bottlenose dolphin in Japanese waters: resident and transient. The dolphins we see in the Izu Islands are resident dolphins and are seen around Mikurajima and Miyakajima all year long. The dolphins captured in the Cove are all transient dolphins who are migrating many miles offshore in international waters when the hunters locate them and drive them into the Cove.

Once they are driven into the Cove and then released again, most likely never get back to their migratory route and food source. These transient dolphins tend to be larger than resident dolphins, and they have a shorter snout. Those who are released will never become resident dolphins.

We do know that China is the main importer of dolphins from Taiji, and so a large part of our work rests in educating the Chinese public about the horrors of Taiji. We are urging them not to support the dolphinarium industry, and I will be going to Beijing on April 20 for a press conference, a series of lectures at universities, and a public screening of The Cove. Our work is about decreasing public demand through education.

When someone knows Taiji inside and out, you quickly come to realize that there are no constants. It is too early to tell, for example, what this year’s numbers mean for next season or beyond. The Dolphin Project spent six months in Taiji this killing season, and we will be back next year to do it all over again. We have been doing this every year since 2003 because this is the only way to be able to answer questions—by showing up year after year and assessing the history.

Richard O’Barry is the founder and director of the Dolphin Project, which is a member of Participant’s Social Action Network, affiliated with the social action campaign supporting The Cove: DolphinProject.net

These are solely the author’s opinions and do not represent those of TakePart, LLC or its affiliates.