Taiji dolphin culls dealt setback

by Rob Gilhooly

Special To The Japan Times

The world’s leading zoo organization last week announced it has lost patience with Japan’s continued use of dolphins from the fisheries drives at Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, and suspended its Japanese member from its roster.

The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) has made numerous attempts to stop Japanese aquariums from taking cetaceans from the Taiji drives, which are undertaken for several months each fall and frequently garner international criticism.

As recently as last summer, WAZA officials made an appeal in Tokyo, recommending its Japanese member implement a two-year moratorium on member organizations taking from the drives. The issue was discussed again during WAZA’s annual international conference in November.

While the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA) has since proposed restrictions on the method of capturing dolphins, it has not restricted its members from taking animals from the drive, WAZA said.

“WAZA council concluded that a satisfactory agreement could not be reached and voted to suspend the Japanese association’s membership,” said Hyatt Antognini Amin, a WAZA spokesman. “The council also reaffirmed its position that WAZA members must confirm they will not acquire dolphins from the Taiji fishery.”

The governing body of zoos worldwide requires “all members to adhere to policies that prohibit participating in cruel and nonselective methods of taking animals from the wild.”

The dolphin hunts were brought to international attention in 2009 following the release of “The Cove,” a documentary that went on to win a best Oscar gong in 2010. In recent years, the killing activities have been shielded from public view.

The Taiji culls are widely considered to be both cruel and selective. The method used involves banging metal pipes underwater from fishing boats to confuse the animals’ sensitive sonar.

Species more prized as “show dolphins” for aquariums, which can fetch tens of thousands of dollars, are trapped in nets, while the remainder are impaled with metal spears behind the blowhole to sever the spinal cord.

In 2010, a Japanese study claimed this method was more humane than the more random hurling of harpoons from fishing boats employed previously in Taiji’s drive hunts. In 2013, however, a study by scientists in Britain and the U.S. refuted those claims, saying that analysis of the method showed it failed to “fulfill the internationally recognized requirement for immediacy.”

JAZA’s Kensho Nagai said the organization has explained its “circumstances” in some detail, but WAZA “has not been able to fully comprehend them.”

“The method being employed in Japan to catch dolphins is recognized by the Japanese government and it is from places following government-ratified fishing methods that aquariums are buying dolphins,” Nagai said.

The method used to catch dolphins that are used in aquariums and zoos nationwide is very different than the one used to catch dolphins that are used for food, he added. “Despite this,” he said, “the two methods are seen as being one and the same thing.”

Dolphins fished for aquariums “are handled with extreme care” and “are exposed to zero stress” by the Taiji fishermen, Nagai said.

WAZA failed to respond to a request for comment on Nagai’s claims.

What impact the suspension will have is uncertain, especially due to a seeming lack of concern about the Taiji drives in Japan.

Toshiaki Morioka, a member of nongovernment organization Action For Marine Mammals, said “most Japanese don’t know the facts” about the slaughters.

“If they did, I think most would be against it,” Morioka said. “It is symbol of a pathology in Japanese society that this news is rarely mentioned in the Japanese media.”

Morioka says JAZA ignores the global trend to reduce numbers of both dolphins and aquariums, but hopes the suspension will serve as a wake-up call for JAZA to reconsider the way the animals are handled, distributed and sold.

Asked if JAZA would consider pushing member aquariums to purchase dolphins from places other than Taiji, Nagai pointed to a dearth of alternatives.

“The chances of that happening are next to zero,” he said.