On the harbor road heading east toward Tomyozaki Point, there is a moss-encrusted monument dedicated to an ill-fated whaling expedition in 1878. Facing fierce westerly winds, the fishermen released their catch, a right whale and her calf, and tied their boats together with nets to bolster defenses, but they were soon ripped apart and the fleet tossed further out to sea. More than 100 crew members lost their lives.
It’s the kind of story that resonates with the 3,500 residents in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, which is widely regarded as the birthplace of organized whaling in Japan, dating back over 400 years and continuing until the International Whaling Commission moratorium went into effect in 1986.
“When I was a child, I can remember the festival-like atmosphere when the boats came back (from a whaling expedition),” says local resident Sachiko Kushi, 78, outside a supermarket operated by Taiji’s fisheries cooperative. “That tradition has gone, but we still eat whale and dolphin meat. My grandchildren love it.”
High winds returned to Taiji in early September, when Typhoon Etau swept through the controversial town, although on this occasion there were no fatalities. Having heard reports of tornadoes out to sea, the town’s fishermen were staying on land and at first light on Sept. 8, they could be seen scuttling round the harbor securing their boats as rain cascaded across Taiji Bay.
In fact, the town had been battening down the hatches since the first day of the month, which marked the official start of a six-month season that has for years kicked up a more fierce, global storm.
Taiji’s notorious dolphin hunts annually attract anti-whaling activists from around the world. Their arrival in town triggers an almost Pavlovian reaction among local fisheries personnel and law enforcers alike. Barriers and “Keep out” signs are erected, and passports scrutinized, a process that has become increasingly stringent since the 2009 release of the Oscar-winning film “The Cove,” which documented the capture and slaughter of hundreds of dolphins in the town’s “Killer Cove.”
Swelling the ranks this year was a healthy contingent of local media, which far from following up on the film’s claims of barbarism and cruelty that violate international animal welfare codes, were turning their cameras to the outcome of another storm that had been quietly brewing in town.
On Sept. 8, the Japan Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA) announced that the local museum had been cut loose from the governing body’s ranks for failing to respond to a directive to stop purchasing Taiji dolphins.
“It was predictable,” says Ric O’Barry, 75, who gained global renown in the 1960s as the trainer of TV dolphin Flipper and again almost half a century later when he appeared in “The Cove” having rejected his erstwhile role as a champion of the captive dolphin industry. “Now they are renegades.”
JAZA’s ultimatum to its members to stop purchasing live dolphins from Taiji came after the body was itself suspended and threatened with expulsion from the world’s leading zoo organization if it failed to sever its “unethical” association with the town.
A ballot among 152 JAZA members revealed that 99 were in favor of staying with the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) and 43 against. Only one, however, vowed to actively continue its trade with Taiji — the Taiji Whale Museum.
In explaining the enforced resignation, Tetsuo Kirihata, 56, deputy director of the museum, which features an aquarium housing 40 dolphins mostly caught in the drives, says certain activist bodies, many of them based overseas, had pressurized WAZA into its “regrettable” decision.
“This museum is part of Taiji and there is nothing illegal about the drives, which are an important cultural asset that we must protect,” Kirihata says.
The JAZA ruling has brought a mixed reaction among residents, some of whom expressed concern that it may signal the beginning of the end of that “cultural asset.”
“It would be a sad day,” says one resident, who declined to give her name. “It’s a deeply ingrained part of our food culture and I hate to think we would be forced to end that by people who don’t even try to understand it.”
Toshikazu Owashi, 46, a resident of the neighboring town of Nachi-Katsuura, believes the order will eventually have significant ramifications.
“It could have a huge impact on the fishermen, although JAZA is not actually condemning the dolphin drives,” he says. “They probably have another agenda and, like the activists, I wouldn’t be surprised if it has something to do with money.”
According to fisheries cooperative official Yoshifumi Kai, 55, however, little has changed. Orders for live dolphins this year stand at 150, compared with the 70 that were sold to aquariums in 2014.
“Basically, the number of orders has not changed,” says Kai, who lists dolphin and whale sukiyaki among his favorite local dishes. “The number of aquariums have decreased a little as there are no orders from JAZA-affiliated aquariums, with one exception.”
Asked if the orders were mostly coming from overseas, Kai says there is no way of knowing. “We only sell domestically, to buyers who then may sell on to overseas clients,” Kai says. “Those buyers have increased their orders, which has made up the difference for the orders lost (from JAZA affiliates).”
Experts are in no doubt, however, that the dolphins will end up both at overseas aquariums and non-JAZA-affiliated marine parks, of which there are 17 out of a total of 54 nationwide that keep dolphins, according to Yukari Sugisaka, 53, of animal welfare nongovernment organization Help Animals.
“(Non-JAZA facilities) will buy plenty and there will also be many importers, such as China and South Korea, which are among the few countries that are actually increasing the number of aquariums,” says Sugisaka, who co-wrote a study in 2013 that showed 25 nations, including Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Thailand, Chile and Croatia, have either banned the catching of dolphins from the wild or keeping them in captivity. “Income generated from live sales to aquariums is the biggest incentive — some varieties, such as the bottlenose, fetching millions of yen, as opposed to the roughly ¥10,000 made from the meat of a single dolphin,” she adds.
One visitor to the museum expresses a concern the directive could eventually backfire on JAZA.
“Larger facilities with the room and means to practice husbandry probably won’t be affected, but these are few and far between,” says Hisako Nagaoka, who was visiting from Osaka. “Smaller facilities, though, rely on live catches and could easily die out without a good cooperative breeding program among JAZA members.”
Sugisaka, however, takes a more positive view, saying the overriding reason for voting to stay with WAZA is the exchange of resources that members can enjoy.
“I think JAZA affiliates will now take breeding far more seriously, which wasn’t the case up until now because the need for large pools and the effort required for breeding meant it was less trouble and far cheaper simply to buy dolphins from Taiji,” she says, adding that dolphins are often “loaned” between member facilities to prevent in-breeding. “As JAZA members research and develop husbandry methods, I think even nonmembers will start to look at breeding and, subsequently, Japanese will begin to question the dolphin drives.”
Some activists suspect that there are members of WAZA among Taiji’s international clients, although the global governing body insists that its Taiji ban extends to all its members.
“No JAZA members are allowed to acquire dolphins from Taiji anymore and they are not allowed to be engaged in any sale or export of dolphins,” says WAZA Executive Director Gerald Dick. “However, we share the concern that other organizations outside the influence of JAZA and WAZA are continuing being involved in the drives.”
O’Barry confesses to a degree of despondency at the seeming inability to monitor the Taiji dolphin industry more rigorously.
“I was in China recently and a lot of the dolphins in Beijing Zoo are from Taiji,” O’Barry says. “If people have all the information they might not buy a ticket to go to a dolphin show. That’s what we are trying to do — get to the consumers whether it be buying meat or tickets for a show. Our business is with the consumers, not with the fishermen, who simply lump (all activists) together as terrorists, which we are not.”
This view is shared by Joyakgol, a member of the South Korean nongovernment organization Hot Pink Dolphins. Joyakgol and two others from the organization, which was largely behind the release from captivity over the past two years of five illegally caught dolphins in South Korea, were in Taiji this season.
“As our efforts started to gain attention, aquariums started to import more and more dolphins, and now around 70 percent are imported from Taiji, so we felt a responsibility to do something,” he says, adding that the outcome of the WAZA mandate could eventually mean cut-price dolphins are exported to nations with inadequate facilities, such as China. “I believe it is ethically wrong to make money from dolphins, but in South Korea, like Japan, it is big business.”
O’Barry says governmental influences on the Japanese media have led to a failure to report some of the bigger global issues, including the “dangerously high” levels of mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in dolphin and whale meat — something the town had seemed to acknowledge when it removed the meat from local school lunches.
Kai of the fisheries cooperative admits that tests on local residents have revealed high mercury levels, which official reports say in some cases exceeded 100 parts per million — a far cry from the government’s safe level of 0.4 ppm and 100 times that set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
However, examinations of residents undertaken at the National Institute for Minamata Disease in Kyushu revealed no classic mercury poisoning symptoms, such as trembling hands, Kai says.
“The conclusion that was reached is that the mercury occurring naturally and that which is emitted industrially is different,” he says.
Papers published by scientists at the National Institute for Minamata Disease state the high presence of the antioxidant selenium in seafood as a more plausible explanation, while O’Barry balks at the image of cetaceans only being subjected to naturally occurring mercury.
“There seems to be a view that the dolphins only stay in one place, but they don’t,” he says.
Experts have also criticized the National Institute for Minamata Disease examinations for not including screening procedures widely deemed indispensable when testing for mercury poisoning.
O’Barry is critical of the view, expressed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, among others, that the dolphin drives are an important part of Japanese tradition and culture, a perspective he says is “historically incorrect.”
Yet, while dolphin hunts actually only began in 1969, there is growing support for a re-examination of the roots of the drives, which some believe resulted from International Whaling Commission demands to stop Japanese whalers taking larger cetaceans from the oceans.
“Different regions have different food cultures and in Taiji they ate whale meat and have done for hundreds of years,” says Keiko Yagi, 48, director of a documentary film titled “Behind the Cove,” which debuted at the Montreal International Film Festival on Sept. 4. “However, when the International Whaling Commission ruling came, they were limited to taking small cetaceans, which they did according to the law. … ‘The Cove’ hid such background facts, which is why I called my film ‘Behind the Cove.'”
Yagi also believes the International Whaling Commission moratorium was the outcome of a carefully orchestrated PR campaign by the administration of U.S. President Richard Nixon.
“In the 1970s, the U.S. was widely criticized for Vietnam and to deflect attention from what Swedish Prime Minister (Olof) Palme had already called ‘ecocide,’ the U.S. suddenly brought up whaling at the U.N. in 1972,” Yagi says, in reference to the U.N.’s first summit on the environment, which took place in Stockholm that year but did not originally include whaling as a major item on its agenda, despite the blue whale having been hunted to the point of extinction. “This served as a catalyst for many anti-whaling groups and anti-whaling activities, which were put into the spotlight, and which top-secret U.S. government documents have shown were financially supported by Nixon.
“Those cetaceans that are not on the International Whaling Commission endangered list and under 4 meters long were given the green light,” Yagi says. “Despite all this, we have films like ‘The Cove.'”
Wakayama University assistant professor Simon Wearne, 58, is another who believes that history holds an important key.
“In the beginning, Taiji was the great innovator of the sustainable whaling industry,” says Wearne, who was formerly one of the team of cinematographers nominated for an Emmy for “Whale Wars,” a TV series that followed the activities of anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd. “Where we all went wrong was industrial fishing, and Japan wasn’t the first country to do that. It’s up to Japan to argue that, but they are not doing that very well.”
Wearne believes Taiji will always be able to find a market for its dolphins, especially its meat trade, which he calls “Taiji’s business,” and that a far more effective way to limit live trade is via the institutions that house live cetaceans.
“I don’t agree with captive dolphins and … think live dolphin watching is the best thing,” says Wearne. who is writing a doctorate paper on Taiji’s whaling and is campaigning to get Taiji recognized by UNESCO. “But I do think that Taiji has been forced over the years to become dependent on this income … and that they should be offered an alternative if we want them to consider stopping doing what they’re doing.”
As it stands, Taiji residents feel constantly under siege, according to one female staffer at a whale and dolphin meat processing company, who spoke on condition of anonymity. A fax sent to one company from an unnamed source said “after you die, you and your children are going to hell,” she says.
“What I find upsetting is the never-ending focus on anything that makes us look like barbarians,” she says, adding that activists will wait outside the processing plant to take photos of bloody raw meat because “when they put it on Facebook it will attract sympathy — and money.”
“Not one photo will show anything that will convey cultural commonalities, so shots of the town’s whale statue will exclude the nearby convenience store,” she says. “Instead, the impression given is of a completely different culture and race of people.”
Activists frequently point out discrepancies in residents’ arguments. That a significant sized hill and half a kilometer of winding road separates the statues and convenience store, might be one of them, as would the 1878 whaling story, which stands at odds with a locally imposed veto that forbade catches of right whale mothers and their calves.
Sugisaka says the sympathy pill would be easier to swallow if residents made some efforts to open up what has often been referred to as Japan’s “dirty little secret.”
“They say the killing method they use has improved to shorten the dolphins’ suffering but from the footage I have seen that doesn’t seem to be the case,” she says, adding that research has shown the method does not fulfill the internationally recognized requirement for immediacy. “It’s difficult to know for sure because the tarpaulin hides what is going on, but if they are so sure their methods aren’t barbaric, as WAZA believes, then why not allow someone in to record it?”