The Business of Hunting Dolphins

We have all received one of those e-mails condemning the slaughter of pilot whales in the Faroe Islands. The animals are driven ashore where a mob awaits them with hooks and knives. It is a tradition, they say, and fishermen harvest the meat which, today, is eaten by only a small number of people. That number has been decreasing, and so have the the number of places in Europe where this type of hunt is tolerated. Much of this has to do with international pressure credited, in part, to videos such as the one below that are shared online.

This hunt is not unique to the Faroe but, for some time, most of us thought it was. Why? “Out of sight, out of mind” and, in this case, “out of the news”, seems to me the most accurate answer.

In the small village of Taiji, in south-eastern Japan, dolphins have been hunted, in huge numbers, for decades. The method is similar to that employed by the Danish: the animals are driven towards a cove, they are stranded near the beach with nets that cut them off from the rest of the ocean. Fishermen then choose small packs, drive them ashore and kill them.

For quite some time this hunt was kept from the world because Japanese authorities realized that if the world knew, they would be forced to stop. Science has taught us that dolphins are among the most intelligent beings on the planet, they are self-aware and, last but not least, they are cute. They fill children and adult’s imaginations as good and friendly animals. People would not tolerate the poor treatment of an animal such as the dolphin. Knowing this the Japanese kept their dolphin hunt a secret. They barred any who tried to photograph or film it and harassed the few reporters that ventured to the remote village. It took a documentary crew and specialized equipment to shed some light on the subject and to show the world what was really happening (see the trailer of the documentary The Cove (2009) below).

Japan had been hiding the hunt under the coat of tradition when in fact very few people knowingly ate dolphin. Not only because the habit is not that widespread across the country and because it can bear health hazards, given the high levels of mercury these animals have in their bodies.

So the hunt had less to do with tradition and more to do with the dozens of animals that were captured and sold to marine mammal parks everywhere. One dead dolphin is worth about $600, whereas a live one can be sold for as much as $150,000 dollars. Multiply that by 50, at least, per year, and you have a multi million dollar good that can be exported to any place in the world. This is one of the reasons why the hunt was kept a secret. Marine mammal parks themselves are a lucrative business, especially if they have dolphins. Associating that business with the capture and slaughter of these animals would destroy the industry.

Besides the captures, the kills were, in part, subsidized by state, to keep the industry alive. The meat harvested in Taiji was later sold as meat from other whales that the Japanese people actually eat. Animals that are not as easy to capture because of the IWC moratorium on commercial whaling, that has been in effect since 1982.

Since the documentary was released, dolphin hunting in Taiji has decreased, from 2,000 every year to roughly 800. World awareness is increasing every year, especially since mainstream media started reporting on the subject. However, a huge portion of the population is still not aware of what is happening and of how dolphins appear in the above mentioned marine mammal parks. One good indicator of that is the fact that the number of captured animals at Taiji cove has actually gone up.

I recommend you watch the Oscar winning documentary The Cove and check Sea Sheperd‘s compilation of facts on the Drive Hunt.

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