Japan: Dolphins outwit fishermen on first day of ‘traditional’ Taiji hunt
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Japan: Dolphins outwit fishermen on first day of ‘traditional’ Taiji hunt

Though it began after delays due to bad weather and amid international protests, the Japanese town of Taiji’s annual dolphin drive got off to an uneventful first hunt.

According to the Japan Times, hunters failed to drive a pod of grampus dolphins yesterday morning and returned to shore empty handed. The first minke whale hunt is set for this weekend.

Whaling and dolphin hunting have been going on in Taiji since the early 1600s, but the practice of rounding up dolphins for sale to aquatic parks is a more recent addition to the “tradition”. So are the protests, carried out by an ever-more committed and wide-ranging group of supporters.

Will this year’s hunt be ‘business as usual’?

While the hunters, together with local and national government agencies, have steadfastly tried to prevent media coverage — particularly within Japan — dedicated animal rights activists have managed to document and expose what for many is a shocking display of cruelty and brutality. International media attention on the dolphin hunt began to snowball after the release of the 2010 documentary film, The Cove, featuring former dolphin trainer-turned-dolphin rights activist, Ric O’Barry. O’Barry has already been arrested this year in a town neighboring Taiji for failing to carry his passport, but was released in time to participate in the anti-hunt protests.

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In this 2010 file photo, fishermen drive bottle-nose dolphins into a net during their annual hunt off Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, western Japan. Pic: AP.

So far this year’s hunt has seen the dolphin hunters return to shore empty handed. Yet the hunt lasts a full six months (September – March) so barring a miracle, we can expect to see the waters of the infamous cove at Taiji to once again turn red with the blood of dolphins and minke whales, though we will only witness these disturbing scenes thanks to covert filming by groups such as Sea Shepherd’s Cove Guardians.

According to one source, last year saw 834 dolphins slaughtered and a further 164 captured and bound for aquatic parks, though numbers from other sources differ slightly. Nonetheless, the catch fell far short of 2014’s quota of 1,971. This year’s quota is marginally lower, at 1,873.

An international demand for live dolphins

While Japan has a long-standing tradition of eating whale and dolphin meat, the practice is somewhat obscure and relegated to a relatively small section of society. Much of the impetus for hunting dolphins, however, is not a market for their meat, but rather the high profits reaped from selling live cetaceans to aquatic animal parks located throughout the world. Interestingly enough, in May of this year the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums bowed to international pressure and banned its members from obtaining dolphins caught at Taiji or in similar hunts.

While this year’s captured dolphins won’t be bought and exploited by Japanese parks, according to the English version of the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, some 20 different businesses and facilities have already entered a draw for the chance to buy any unfortunate victims of the live dolphin catch.

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AP Photo/ Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Brooke McDonald

Japanese opposition to the Taiji cetacean hunt

While whale and dolphin hunting certainly reflects poorly on the Japanese nation in terms of international opinion, we should be aware that it is a very small, albeit influential minority in Japan who participates, funds or even supports the capture and slaughter of cetaceans. We should also be careful of mischaracterizing the situation as foreign, mostly white European and American activists travelling to Japan to save dolphins from cruel local hunters, though Western media has largely portrayed it so.

There are Japanese activists who ardently oppose the hunt at Taiji, including a former dolphin hunter and groups such as Action for Marine Mammals. Some Japanese voices against the slaughter also spread their message in English.