Activists comfort dying dolphins

by Eric Prideaux

Opponents of Japan’s annual dolphin slaughter have taken their campaign to a new level of confrontation by paddling into the bloody waters off a western killing cove to comfort animals moments before their deaths.

Dave Rastovich, a champion pro surfer from Australia, on Monday led a group of fellow antiwhaling activists into the waters off Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, where 30 or so captured pilot whales — adults and calves — were being held in a netted enclosure for butchering, according to Richard O’Barry, of the United States, who helped coordinate the event. Pilot whales are a variety of dolphin.

Local fishermen shouted threats and brandished propeller blades and a long wooden pole to chase the activists away, said Barry, 68, who once captured and trained the dolphins used in the 1960s hit U.S. television series “Flipper” about a family and their outdoor adventures with a dolphin, before becoming a celebrity dolphin-rights activist.

“The reason we surfers were there was to share the water, stained red with blood, at eye level, with our ocean kin awaiting their execution,” Rastovich said.

He and 37 other activists visited Taiji to honor the spirits of the hundreds of thousands of mammals butchered there, according to O’Barry. The activists came from Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and the U.S.

Rastovich was accompanied by his wife, Hannah, a model; actress Hayden Panettiere of the U.S. television series “Heroes”; Australian actress Isabel Lucas; award-winning adventure writer Peter Heller of the U.S.; and champion U.S. women’s surfer Karina Petroni. They formed a circle in the water in a time-honored ritual usually held to commemorate fallen surfers.

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. Taiji is home to about a tenth of Japan’s dolphin catch, and other cetaceans are hunted there as well.

Japan’s cetacean slaughter has come under mounting criticism worldwide, not only on humanitarian grounds but also because dolphin meat contains dangerously high levels of mercury. A joint study by Japanese and New Zealand universities in 2000-2003 found a sample of striped dolphin that had 26 micrograms of methylmercury per gram of meat — 87 times higher than the permitted level.

Taiji Municipal Assemblymen Junichiro Yamashita and Hisato Ryono in July told The Japan Times that they had found extremely high mercury and methylmercury levels in the meat of pilot whales killed by local hunters. Those samples, which they termed “toxic waste,” were similarly sourced to meat making its way into lunches at Taiji schools.

Despite such findings, central government officials have adamantly defended the cetacean hunt as integral to Japanese culinary culture. Local fishery officials in Taiji, though, were mum on the dramatic events unfolding earlier this week.

“There’s no comment,” said a spokesman for the Taiji Fishery Association who declined to identify himself. “Please leave us alone.”

Staff writer Jun Hongo and contributing writer Boyd Harnell provided background information for this report. Visit www.savejapandolphins.org for information on the activists’ campaign, and www.jfa.maff.go.jp/whale/index.htm for the government view on cetacean hunts.