Media ignoring mercury-tainted dolphin meat: assemblyman

by Jun Hongo

The Japanese media’s lack of condemnation is the principal reason mercury-tainted dolphin meat continues to be consumed, including in school lunches, a local assembly member from Wakayama Prefecture said Monday.

Junichiro Yamashita of the Taiji Municipal Assembly criticized the nation’s media for their reluctance to report the hazards of dolphin meat, even though samples from local supermarkets have contained mercury levels 10 times above the health ministry’s advisory limit.

“The media have concerns because such information can impact the fishing industry in Taiji,” Yamashita told a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo. “But it is problematic that local residents, including parents of schoolchildren, remain unaware of the issue.”

The Japan Times has been continuously covering the issue, and its Aug. 1 revelation of the mercury risk in school lunches became part of the reason for Yamashita’s news conference Monday.

Approximately 2,300 out of an estimated 20,000 dolphins hunted annually in Japan are slaughtered at the fishing town of Taiji, located on the Kii Peninsula, Yamashita said.

While some are sent to overseas aquariums, others are butchered and the meat is sold in local supermarkets in packages of approximately ¥170 per 100 grams. Dolphin is available in supermarkets in Taiji, Yamashita said, adding that some 150 kg was served last year in school lunches in the area.

Although not customary to most Japanese, the tradition of consuming whales and dolphins, typically in a miso-flavored stew, has continued for more than 400 years. But the independent politician said he was “shocked” when a meat sample taken from a local supermarket in June revealed high levels of mercury and methylmercury.

The test results showed dolphin meat possessed mercury 10 times above the health ministry’s advisory level of 0.4 parts per million, while the level of methylmercury was 10.33 times higher than the ministry’s advisory level of 0.3 ppm, Yamashita said.

While no health impact has been reported, the numbers exceeded some of the examinations conducted on seafood that caused the Minamata mercury-pollution disaster in the 1950s, Yamashita said.

Despite the results, he said he has been unsuccessful in persuading Taiji to restrain sales of the meat or get local residents to stop consuming it.

The town has chosen to expand dolphin use in school lunches while proposing to construct a new dolphin and whale slaughterhouse, for some ¥330 million, to “popularize the consumption of dolphins in the country,” Yamashita revealed. “It is a serious concern that such meat is being served in school lunches.”

He acknowledged that sounding the alarm could threaten the economy of the small fishing town known as the birthplace of Japan’s whaling industry, and some of his assembly colleagues have cold-shouldered him since he revealed the toxic levels. Many fishermen have also been acting differently, he added.

But despite the resistance, the media must lead the way and blow the whistle to prevent a mercury pollution disaster, Yamashita said.

“The health ministry may not be taking this problem seriously now, but once the information spreads, the country will have to face the issue,” he said.