Taiji is a bizar place. On the outside Taiji seems like an amusement park from the 70s (that has not been well maintained), located on an amazingly beautiful coastline. It is like Sea World on steroids. Everywhere there are whale statues and images. If you would visit Taiji without knowing anything, you would think this is a place where people love whales and dolphins. The hidden side of Taiji is the tradition that goes back 400 years. Until the 1980s Taiji had a prosperous economy from commercial whaling. Because of the international ban on commercial whaling, Taiji fisherman started to hunt for dolphins localy. Mostly out of frustration and selfenrichment, thousands of dolphins are slaughtered annualy. It is hard to imagine such cruelty can exist in modern times and with the whole world watching over their shoulder in disbelief.
However, it is not just Taiji that is the problem. The Japanese government allows about 19,000 dolphins to be killed each year. Taiji hunts about 2,000 dolphins every year for meat — a lot less than other places — but is singled out in part because of its “oikomi” method of herding and killing the dolphins in a brutal way near shore.
Dolpin meat is often used in Japan as camouflaged expensive whale meat. While the demand for whale meat is in steady decline, Japan is trying to keep whale and dolpin meat on the menu as part of their national heritage. Dolphin meat often contains high levels of mercury and can be toxic. It can also cause birth defects and spontane abortus.
An often heard argument by Japanese fisherman that hunting for dolphins is the same as farming cows or pigs. An important point, also made in the The Cove, is that dolphins are very concious and intelligent. Humans have an EQ of about 7. Chimpanzees and gorillas a little more than 2. Dolphins have an EQ of 4-5.
What I came to realize after spending a day in Taiji is that the slaughter is not primarily caused by the meat business. The acquariums and zoos that demand dolphins for their shows help maintain the dolphin killings. This industry has representatives that buy the best dolphins for their shows and swim with dolphin activities. A trained dolphin will sell for anywhere between 100.000 USD and 200.000 USD. Because a trained dolphin sold to a dolphinarium brings in a much higher profit than a dolphin sold as meat, the hunt continues in large part because the life dolphin trade reward the fishermen with thousands of dollars for animals that are deemed suitable for commercial exploitation in captivity. The process of selecting dolphins for captivity or slaughter goes on for hours, during which time some dolphins die from shock, injuries or exhaustion. Dolphins that are not selected are slaughtered in the Cove. Most of the life dolphins stay in Taiji for training and are later on sold to the international markets. These buyers (SeaWorld and others) do very well know that the dolphins they are buying are ‘blood’ dolphins.
Today I visited several solitary confinments where dolphins are held captive, the circumstances are unbearable. We found one dolphin all alone in a tank no bigger than 4 square meters. The Whale Museum in Taiji is about the history of whaling and holds a dolphinarium with several dolphin species held captive. These are dolphins that where caught by fishermen from Taiji. Among them are a pair of Risso’s dolphins. These dolphins are some of the shyest animals I have encountered in the wild and they are used to travel vast distances. These two dolphins were hardly moving with their faces pressed against the net. I can only imagine where they would rather be…