Japan Dolphin Hunt Dealt Big Blow

The world’s top zoo association suspends Japan for not stopping the Taiji dolphin slaughter.

Fishermen in wetsuits hunt dolphins at a cove in Taiji, Japan. (Photo: Adrian Mylne/Reuters)

Apr 23, 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 World Association of Zoos and Aquariums Council this week suspended the membership of the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums because the organization has refused to stop the annual killing of dolphins at the cove in Taiji, Japan.

For years, animal rights activists have pressured WAZA to sanction Japanese zoos and aquariums because the Taiji hunt not only kills hundreds of dolphins each year but also fuels the captive dolphin industry. The animals captured at the cove are often sold at a premium to aquariums around the world.

“WAZA requires all members to adhere to policies that prohibit participating in cruel and non-selective methods of taking animals from the wild,” WAZA said in a statement. "JAZA has violated the WAZA Code of Ethics and Animal Welfare."

Since 2000, the annual hunt, which runs from September through mid-April, has caused the deaths of roughly 18,000 dolphins. Most are butchered on-site for food, despite the high mercury concentrations found in dolphin meat. The youngest and cutest are spared death but sold to marine-mammal facilities in Russia, the Middle East, Latin America, the Caribbean, and East Asia. These dolphins can fetch upwards of $125,000 each.

Although WAZA has officially condemned the Taiji dolphin hunts for years, until now it had declined to take direct action against the Japanese group.

Ric O'Barry (center) leads a protest at the WAZA headquarters in Switzerland, demanding the group suspend JAZA for allowing the dolphin drive to continue. (Photo: ValeriaMachado)


WAZA officials said there have been ongoing attempts to resolve the issue, including a proposal put to JAZA in 2014 that it enforce a two-year moratorium on taking Taiji dolphins. JAZA, however, rejected the idea.

The announcement took many animal-rights activists by surprise.

“We congratulate and applaud WAZA Council for doing the right thing,” Ric O’Barry, star of the documentary The Cove and head of Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project, said in a statement. “Their credibility with their peers has been destroyed. This is a big win for all wild dolphins swimming past the shores of Taiji.”

“Now that JAZA has been suspended and isolated from their own industry, they will be reduced to renegades if they continue to traffic in dolphins,” O’Barry said in an email.

The Dolphin Project was the first to demand that WAZA enforce its own code of ethics, O’Barry said. Last year, he and Sakae Hemmi, of the Japanese conservation group Elsa Nature Conservancy, met with Gerald Dick, WAZA’s executive director, about suspending JAZA’s membership status. Those talks ended in a stalemate.

The Taiji dolphin slaughter has received global condemnation over the years, including from Caroline Kennedy, the United States ambassador to Japan. In January 2014, Kennedy tweeted, “Deeply concerned by inhumaneness of drive hunt dolphin killing. USG [U.S. government] opposes drive hunt fisheries.”

Despite JAZA’s suspension, it was not immediately clear whether the Japanese group will take action to end the Taiji dolphin drives and cut off the supply of live animals to aquariums, many of them in Japan.

But that certainly remains a possibility.

“It is important to note that WAZA still remains committed to continuing discussions with JAZA and its members,” WAZA said, “in an effort to end the loss of animal life through the drive fisheries.”