Taiji tests residents’ hair to gauge mercury levels from dolphin meat

by Minoru Matsutani

Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, has taken hair samples of residents to determine how much methyl mercury is in their bodies from dolphin meat they have eaten linked to the town’s contentious annual slaughter of the mammals.

An official of Taiji’s Resident Welfare Division told The Japan Times on Wednesday that the town of some 3,500 people took hair samples from those who went in for regular health checkups and agreed to submit them for testing between June and August.

It is the first time the town has tested hair samples to determine levels of the highly toxic substance. The test results are expected to be in by the end of March.

The move shows the town’s growing awareness of the risks of eating dolphin and that mercury contamination may threaten local health.

Taiji has a centuries-old history of catching coastal dolphins for food. The practice drew international attention this summer with the debut of “The Cove,” a documentary showing the harpooning of dolphins in Taiji and pointing out the high mercury levels in dolphins caught there. Animal rights groups have condemned the annual hunt and the town’s use of dolphin meat for food has also been slammed.

The welfare official said the tests were “part of periodic health checks of Taiji residents.”

Those found to have high levels of mercury in their hair will be advised to take more thorough tests, she said. She declined to say what the town would do with regard to its whaling and dolphin fishing industry if the tests reveal many cases of mercury poisoning.

In this season’s hunt, which started in early September, the Taiji Fisheries Cooperative has not killed dolphins for food, apparently fearing bad publicity. The fishermen instead caught the animals for sale to aquariums in Japan. The whale hunt has not been affected.

According to research conducted by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, which examined 9,700 fish of 400 varieties in the early 2000s with assistance from the Fisheries Agency and local governments, the methyl mercury level of bottlenose dolphins, the type caught in Taiji, measured 6.622 ppm, nearly 18 times higher than the 0.37 ppm found in harbor porpoises, another type of dolphin caught elsewhere in Japan and 0.54 ppm in Pacific bluefin tuna.

Other large marine animals, including swordfish, typically contain between 0.3 and 0.7 ppm of mercury, according to the research.