By Brady Jones - Staff Writer

September marks the beginning of an annual, six-month slaughter the world can no longer look away from

The remote maritime town of Taiji sits nondescriptly on the sleepy southern coastline of Japan. The families of the roughly 3,500 permanent residents of this working class city can be traced back generations and typically make their trade in a variety of longstanding traditional, Japanese skilled labor jobs. In the Summer, people flock to Taiji to enjoy the sun-drenched beaches; in the winter, the town sits quietly, wrapped snuggly in the comforting foggy blanket of seemingly endless, chilly days. For the most part, the people here are friendly, inviting and extol the virtues of their city to curious travellers. There is one controversial subject, however, that some of the town’s residents are simply unaware of, and those that are aware refuse to acknowledge.

Beginning every September, the peaceful blue waters of Taiji become host to frenzied boat activity, intense splashing, and military-level secrecy as the water quickly changes to an eerie, blood-red. For roughly six months each year, wild dolphins swimming freely in the waters surrounding Japan are viciously pursued by loud, gas-powered fishing boats, forced into a secluded cove and trapped by a vast maze of nets. These dolphins, confused and terrified, try to escape the nets in which they are caught. They are then slaughtered, one by one, as the fishermen violently stab them with long, sharp spears, impale them with sharp hooks and drag them, still alive, into their boats. The dolphins flail wildly and the quiet winter air is overwhelmed by their high-pitched screams as they struggle in their own blood, and the blood of others. By the time the warming air of March arrives, thousands of dolphins will have been killed. The Japanese Fisheries Agency issues annual permits for as many as 16,000 nationwide, according to The Dolphin Project. Those that are still alive, left confused, petrified, and malnourished, are released back into the wild; presumably to be attacked again the following September, if they are able to survive that long. 

For some, survival is no longer possible; with this year’s slaughter already having begun, twenty dolphins were killed on the first day alone. 

Image courtesy of National Geographic

Image courtesy of National Geographic

In recent years, the annual slaughter of Taiji’s dolphins has received heightened scrutiny from the global community. The practice was first brought to attention in the 2009 documentary, The Cove. The images from that film, seen for the first time, of dolphins desperately seeking escape before being viciously attacked was horrifying, to say the very least. Since The Cove's premier, fishermen have taken to using a hunting process called "pithing" which, though appearing less cruel for the sake of outsiders, is no less barbaric. The issue of the annual Taiji dolphin slaughter was suddenly polarized, causing a burgeoning cry of outrage from advocates and conservationists alike; and yet, the Japanese government has done nothing to stop it.

The purpose of this dolphin slaughter, repeated with chilling consistency every year, is to meet the world’s demand for dolphin meat and to secure the remaining captured mammals for aquariums and other enclosed, man-made habitats. The general populace has been led to believe that this annual hunt is sanctioned by the Japanese government and is thus completely within the parameters of the law. Disturbingly, in response to the increase in world-wide attention, the fisherman of Taiji set up a series of tarps designed to shield concerned eyes from the horrors of the slaughter. Attempts at more “humane” methods of killing the dolphins have been shown to be entirely ineffective. 

According to Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project, the appetite for dolphin meat is surprisingly quite low in Japan. Whale meat is actually preferred to dolphin meat, and an astonishing undercover study cited by The Dolphin Project showed that large quantities of whale meat turned out to be dolphin meat; dolphins were being slaughtered and their meat disguised as whale meat in an effort to maximize profit. Many of the Japanese fishermen involved in the hunt privately admitted that much of the Taiji dolphin slaughter occurred to remove dolphins from the area, as they consumed too many fish, diminishing local fishermen’s opportunity for profit. Global campaigns aimed towards ending this yearly slaughter have highlighted the fact that the need for profit has taken priority over the safety and well-being of one of nature’s most amazing and inspiring creatures. Taking into account the world’s demand for dolphin and whale meat, the very real danger of overfishing the world’s dolphin populations and pushing them to the brink of extinction is becoming more glaringly evident with each annual slaughter. 

But there may be hope at the end of the spear yet. Recently, Trip Advisor pledged to no longer sell tickets to attractions featuring animals captured from the wild; this supposedly includes any attraction or exhibit featuring dolphins. Declining attendance at these attractions affects the bottom line of these business’, with the goal of discouraging the need for new mammals. Ultimately, many hope this will result in fewer wild mammals being captured to be used for human entertainment. 

Last year, the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA) was suspended by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums by unanimous vote. The suspension was a result of JAZA’s inability to agree to strict terms set forth regarding the methods utilized in their dolphin hunts, specifically rejecting a two-year moratorium on the tradition. 

Additionally, a very important event is coming to Japan. In July of 2020, Tokyo will host the Olympic Summer Games. This is a very proud moment for the country and its citizens, and any negative attention concerning their country is something they will want to avoid. Bringing continuous, global focus to the Taiji dolphin slaughter could very well force official action from the Japanese government.

Sadly, although the Taiji dolphin hunt is the most notorious, there are also dolphin hunting endeavours taking place in other areas of the globe, such as Indonesia, Solomon Islands, and Thailand. In all of these locations, the pursuit of human entertainment and financial profit are prioritized over marine-life conservation. Because the Taiji dolphin hunt has become the world’s most recognizable one, ending it would send a powerful message to the world community and may help to subsequently end the other occurrences of marine slaughter elsewhere. 

This horrific slaughter of one of nature’s most intelligent and peaceful creatures must come to an end, but necessitates a global effort to raise awareness of the issue and call upon the Japanese government to take action. We as individuals, organizations, and government officials must continue to put “pressure” on the Japanese government and its citizens to recognize the dangers and injustice of the Taiji slaughter. The dolphins of Taiji depend on it.

~Cover image courtesy of National Geographic