Japanese Aquariums' Link to the Dolphin Slaughter at Taiji

A survey shows that half the dolphins in Japanese facilities are taken from the annual hunts at the cove.

An aquarium in Tokyo. (Photo: Reuters)

May 19, 2015· 1 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Nearly half of the dolphins in Japanese aquariums may have been taken from the dolphin hunts in Taiji, according to a survey in The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, which reported that a lack of breeding facilities is fueling demand for the mammals.

The newspaper surveyed 33 of the 54 Japanese aquariums that keep dolphins and found that 18 of them bought animals from the Taiji drives. Eight aquariums refused to respond.

“The 33 aquariums keep at least 352 dolphins, of which 158 were captured through drive fishery,” The Yomiuri Shimbun reported. “Some aquariums said all the dolphins they keep are from drive fishery.”

An additional 68 dolphins were captured after being snagged “in a fixed net by accident,” according to the newspaper, while only 42 were bred at aquariums. The article did not specify how the remaining dolphins were acquired.

Critics of the drives say the aquariums are sustaining the Taiji hunt, where entire pods are forced into a small cove and then slaughtered, released, or captured and sold to aquariums in Japan and around the world.

But is captive breeding the best way to reduce demand for live dolphins?

The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums has long demanded that the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums put an end to buying live-caught dolphins, and last month it suspended JAZA’s membership for refusing to do so.

Even zoos belonging to JAZA have criticized the country’s aquariums and said that captive breeding is the way to end the drives.

“Zoos stopped obtaining and exhibiting wild animals some time ago,” one unidentified zoo director told The Yomiuri Shimbun. “We’ve made efforts to breed animals. I think the time has come for aquariums to also change their way of thinking.”

But Ric O’Barry, director of Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project and star of the Oscar-winning documentary on Taiji, The Cove, said captive breeding “is not the solution.”

“One can clearly see that dolphins and other whales suffer and die in captivity,” O’Barry said in an email. “It does not matter if the dolphin was captured from the wild or born in captivity. They suffer equally. The captive dolphins die from the same stress-related diseases whether they were born in captivity or captured from the wild.”

Even if Japanese aquariums wanted to breed dolphins, most of them lack the space for a breeding pool, where mothers can nurse their calves.

As Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, pointed out, if aquariums are too small for breeding, they are, by the industry's own standards, too small for dolphins.

“Rather than recognize that there must be a problem with their facilities, they simply think they should be allowed to continue to source from the drives because otherwise they couldn’t have dolphins,” Rose, who opposes captive breeding, said in an email.

Courtney Vail, program and campaigns manager at Whale and Dolphin Conservation, said changing the way Japanese aquariums operate would be difficult.

“Unless standards improve in Japan, breeding success will be limited,” Vail said in an email. “Anything that removes the incentive for the hunts to continue is a step in the right direction. Of course, we have to be concerned that captures will occur elsewhere around Japan through other methods. Any capture operation is inhumane.”