Nearly every day since the first week in September, fishermen have been driving pods of dolphins into quiet coves near the village of Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, to kill them for their meat, whatever the mercury content, or sell them to marine parks.
Each year, between 2,000 and 3,000 dolphins are taken in Taiji, a little more than 10 percent of Japan’s dolphin catch. Among the species killed there so far this season, which runs until March, have been bottlenose and risso dolphins.
Striped dolphins also have been killed in recent years, but it is not clear if any have been taken yet this season.
In the last two decades, an estimated 400,000 small cetaceans — mostly porpoises — have been killed off Japan, according to yearly hunting quota data from fishery co-ops.
Some of the dolphins are taken to be sold to dolphin or marine parks. Demand is high, especially in China and Taiwan, and one animal will fetch a small fortune. But most are taken for their meat, which ends up on store shelves across Japan.
Dolphin meat, however, contains dangerously high levels of mercury. The results of a study posted in 2003 on the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry’s Web site shows 6.6 micrograms of methyl mercury — a highly toxic form of mercury — per gram of meat in bottlenose dolphins. That level is 22 times greater than the government’s provisional permitted concentration of 0.3 micrograms per gram of meat. Samples taken from other species of dolphin and whale meat also exceeded that level.
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is authorized to remove from store shelves any product with 1.0 microgram of mercury per gram or more, the health ministry only says that when mercury levels become too high, it is authorized to urge sellers of dolphin meat to voluntarily restrict trade.
The results of a joint study published last year by the Health Sciences University of Hokkaido, Daiichi College of Pharmaceutical Sciences and the School of Biological Sciences in New Zealand are even worse. Their 2000-2003 study of the Japanese market found one sample of striped dolphin that had 26 micrograms of methyl mercury per gram of meat — 87 times higher than the permitted level.
“The consumption of only 4 grams of this product would exceed the provisional tolerable weekly intake of M-Hg (methyl mercury) for someone of 60 kg body weight,” the report says.
Tetsuya Endo, a Health Sciences University professor who coauthored the study, said methyl mercury is the form of mercury most likely to cause brain or nerve damage if eaten frequently.
“To be honest, I’m worried about people who eat too much of it,” Endo said. “It’s dangerous. There is a range in the concentrations (of mercury in meat) and averages may be low, but a consumer may have bad luck and get a high-density serving. Japanese people have their choice of food. Why eat something dangerous?”
But for people in places like Wakayama and Shizuoka prefectures, where dolphin is traditional fare, the question is “Why not eat dolphin?”
Supermarkets cut dolphin meat into 250-gram pieces, balancing the amount of fat, meat and skin in each chunk. The meat is sold in packages for about 170 yen per 100 grams. It is typically cooked in a miso-flavored stew with burdock, carrots and ginger.
A supermarket manager in Mishima, Shizuoka Prefecture, who spoke on condition of anonymity sees no reason to stop selling dolphin.
“A couple of years ago, I heard something about mercury levels in dolphin meat being pretty high,” the manager said. “But there haven’t been any regulations or any ban from the government, and the parent store hasn’t put any restrictions on selling dolphin meat. If it is really that dangerous, there probably wouldn’t be any shipments in the first place. So I’m guessing it’s OK.”
Asked about this year’s dolphin cull, an official at the Taiji Fishery Cooperative Union declined comment. The government maintains that for most of the population, the risk is low if dolphin meat is eaten in moderation.
The health ministry said that a 1995-2004 nationwide study on daily intake of methyl mercury showed the levels were safe, even for pregnant women, who are at risk of having children with birth defects if they ingest too much mercury.
However, last November, the health ministry’s Pharmaceutical Affairs and Food Sanitation Council issued a statement saying it recognized study results showing that some fetuses’ auditory responses were delayed in pregnant women who ingested mercury, and urged them to limit the dolphin meat in their diet, giving maximums for the different species. In the case of bottlenose, it is 10 grams per week.
Health concerns are not the only problem the Taiji kill has. The annual event has attracted bitter criticism from animal rights activists worldwide. Demonstrations against the hunt were held in 28 countries in late September.
At one hunting site last week in Taiji, activists watched as boats pursued several pods of bottlenose dolphins, slowly moving their crafts closer together, while crewmen banged poles against their boats to confuse the encircled dolphins.
Once herded into a holding cove and closed in with large nets, the dolphins swam in circles to protect the females and any young able to keep up. The young separated from the group were left to die of starvation or to be eaten by sharks.
The animals were left for one night in the cove so the stress-related hormones leave their bodies, making their meat more tender, and skiffs and longboats arrived at daybreak and herded the dolphins into an adjacent cove. There, a few were taken out to be sold to aquariums.
Then the longboat crews began to kill the dolphins. They cut the throats of the remaining dolphins or stabbed them randomly, a method animal rights activists call barbaric. Experts, including a former hunter, have said random stabbing results in excruciating death that can take as long as six minutes.
On Saturday, 128 bottlenose dolphins and 75 pilot whales were killed, according to Ric O’Barry, a marine mammal expert with One Voice, a French-based activist group.
O’Barry, who once trained dolphins for the 1960s U.S. television series “Flipper,” was visibly upset and said so many animals were caught that some of them had to be taken straight to the killing cove because the holding cove was too small.
“This was the most barbaric slaughter I’ve seen this year,” he said.
Staff writers Jun Hongo and Eric Prideaux contributed to this report