Despite an international trend taking the opposite tack, the number of aquariums in Japan is growing and sales of dolphins continue to flourish, results of an independent study have revealed.

Animal welfare groups Elsa Nature Conservancy and Help Animals have collated data from official documents, marine facilities and other organizations showing Japan is the world’s leader in aquariums and the numbers of cetaceans kept in them.

“When it comes to aquariums, Japan is the globe’s superpower,” leads the report, “Dolphins Raised in Japanese Facilities,” released July 20. The majority of dolphins kept in captivity are taken from the wild and cetacean deaths within facilities “are not unusual,” it continues.

Elsa and Help Animals found some 30 million people annually visit 65 facilities that are members of the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Nonmember facilities take the nation’s aquarium count close to 100, meaning almost one-fifth of the world’s total are located in Japan.

Around 57 percent of JAZA member institutions keep a total of 600 dolphins.

“When I started the research in 2003 there were 500 dolphins in captivity, meaning numbers have since increased 20 percent,” said Elsa’s Sakae Hemmi. “This is a dire situation . . . especially in light of an international trend to reduce (the) numbers of aquariums and dolphins in captivity.”

The United Kingdom closed all its dolphinariums back in 1993 and more than 23 other nations, including Australia, Mexico, Thailand and Croatia, have either banned the catching or trade of wild dolphins, or keeping them in captivity. This is mainly due to a growing belief that to do so constitutes a form of animal abuse.

In March, India announced the banning of new dolphinariums after they were deemed unlawful under the country’s Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.

The United States has around 30 of the facilities, down by 14 in the past 20 years, according to Naomi Rose at the Humane Society International, headquartered in Washington. Around one-third of them refuse to keep dolphins, Hemmi and Yukari Sugisaka of Help Animals have discovered.

“Overall, the upward trend is only seen in the developing world, while it’s the reverse in the developed world,” said Rose, who specializes in marine mammal protection issues. “Japan is considered a first-world country, but when it comes to this industry, it’s in the same camp as China and other developing nations.”

China’s aquarium industry is also growing rapidly, with most of its dolphins Japan-caught imports, according to the report. Japan’s overall exports have climbed steadily over the past decade, from eight in 2003 to 51 last year, the study says.

Between the first six months of this year, a known total of 67 dolphins have been either exported or transferred within Japan. Some species reportedly sell for as much as ¥15 million.

Over the past decade, an average of more than 100 bottlenose and other popular species have been caught annually for aquariums by fishermen in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, which was the subject of the Oscar-winning 2009 documentary “The Cove.”

The film focused not only on what many experts worldwide believe to be inhumane hunting methods employed by Taiji’s fishermen, but also their annual slaughter for the meat of hundreds more of the cetaceans.

According to Hemmi, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums last year called on associate members to ban the import of dolphins caught in Taiji’s “inhumane” drives.

Diana Reiss, a specialist in dolphin cognitive psychology at Hunter College, New York, says it is “unconscionable” that institutions claiming to be guardians of such “highly evolved, cognizant animals” should purchase dolphins from a fishermen who “sell dolphins with one hand, and slaughter even more with the other.”

She also said that dolphins are not suited to aquariums.

“Great Apes are now in sanctuaries . . . and dolphins need the same treatment. They are not suited to aquariums and the current trend in the advanced world reflects that,” she said.

JAZA is unable to meet WAZA’s call due to national catch quotas set by the fisheries ministry that permit the drives based on the “scientifically disproven” belief that dolphins are depleting yellowfin tuna stocks, Reiss added.

Shuhei Hasegawa, a dolphin specialist and manager of Minami Chita Beachland in Nagoya, argued that Japan’s catch quotas are set at “levels that will not impact their survival.”

“People are aware of dolphins’ abilities because they see them in dolphin shows,” he said, adding that dolphins’ perceived intelligence is largely a result of aquarium training.

“Off-site conservation . . . is one role of aquariums. This is why we are making efforts to breed (dolphins),” Hasegawa said.

The authors of the Elsa-Help Animals report claim that in captivity, the dolphin reproduction rate is low and mortality high. Many dolphins die within months of captivity, according to Sugisaka.

But HSI’s Rose says captive dolphins live as long as their counterparts in the wild — roughly 45 years.

“The difference is, in captivity dolphins have no predators and they are well-attended. They should be living much longer, as other captive animals do,” said Rose of the Humane Society International.

Elsa’s Hemmi says Japan is doing to its dolphins what the U.S. did to American buffalo in the 19th century.

“At the present rate, in some regions there is a distinct possibility that (some species) will be wiped out,” Hemmi said. Drives in Futo, Shizuoka Prefecture, were suspended in 2004 due to drastically depleted stocks, she added.

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