Death Returns to Taiji: 24 Bottlenose Dolphins Butchered at the Cove

The deaths represent the largest one-day kill since late November, when 54 striped dolphins were slaughtered.

(Photo: Wild Horizons/UIG via Getty Images)

Jan 10, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Salvatore Cardoni holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

Another day, another senseless dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan.

The waters of the village’s notorious inlet, spotlighted in 2009 by the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, ran red with blood yesterday as local fishermen killed 24 bottlenose dolphins.

“Many of these dolphins suffered terribly for a great length of time before actually dying,” says Melissa Sehgal, senior leader for Sea Shepherd’s Cove Guardian campaign, from the ground in Taiji. She leads a team of 12 volunteers that monitor the six-month drive hunt, which involves everything from counting the dead to helming cameras that live-stream the killings.

The 24 dolphin deaths represent the largest one-day kill since Nov. 23, 2013, when 54 striped dolphins were slaughtered, she says. A total of 459 dolphins have been killed this season.

Each year beginning Sept. 1 and ending sometime in March, around 30 fishermen from the small town, population 2,000, lure luckless pods of whales and dolphins from the open ocean into a narrow bay bordered by steep, rocky cliffs. There, they separate the younger ones worth selling to aquariums in Japan and around the world.

The rest are impaled with harpoons and butchered. Their toxic, mercury-rich meat is then sent to dining tables across East Asia.

Prior to the release of the film, the town’s fishermen were annually killing around 1,600 dolphins, a fraction of the country’s annual quota of 20,000 dolphins and small whales, such as pilot whales.

But the worldwide media exposure that surged in the wake of the Academy Award and increased pressure from activist organizations such as Sea Shepherd and Cove star Ric O’Barry’s Save Japan Dolphins combined to lower the kill count each subsequent season. During the 2012–2013 season, roughly 900 dolphins were killed.

“When our team arrived in Japan, the government was force-feeding dolphin meat with toxic loads of mercury to thousands of schoolchildren and had a plan to expand this scheme to unsuspecting communities all over the country,” the film’s director, Louie Psihoyos, said last fall. “That’s not happening anymore.”

But, as TakePart reported in September, that silver lining has had a dark cloud.

As demand for dead dolphins dropped, demand for live ones skyrocketed, with each fetching $150,000 or more. This, critics say, is the economic underpinning of the entire enterprise. Remove it, and the business collapses.

Around 250 dolphins were caught for captivity during the 2012–2013 season—a sharp increase from the 50 captured in 2011–2012. This season, 88 have been corralled, destined for a life in show business.

Even in the largest aquarium facilities, captive dolphins have access to a fraction of 1 percent of the swimming area available to them in their natural environment—the open ocean. Some wild dolphins can swim up to 100 miles a day hunting for food.

“Japan claims the slaughter is a cultural tradition,” says Sehgal. “But in fact it’s really a cover-up to reap the financial rewards from the live-captive dolphin trade, which funds the slaughter.”

She estimates that the 13 dolphins captured yesterday represent “more than a-million-dollar haul for the Japanese government.”

Asked what people can to do stop the killings, Sehgal was quick and to the point: “Don’t ever visit a marine park again—over time, that will definitely bring an end to this slaughter.”