The Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums is asking zoos and aquariums across the country to vote on the continued procurement of dolphins from the town of Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, whose dolphin hunts and annual culls have riled activists worldwide.
The unprecedented request by JAZA to its 152 members — 89 zoos and 63 aquariums — follows the announcement on April 22 by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums that it had decided in a unanimous vote to suspend JAZA’s membership on the grounds that collection of cetaceans from the Taiji drives is unethical and is an affront to animal welfare.
WAZA has given JAZA a month — until May 21 — to stop the practice among member aquariums, or face expulsion.
JAZA is currently briefing members on WAZA’s ultimatum and is asking them to express their stance by May 20, when JAZA will convene a board meeting and decide to go with the majority opinion of its members, JAZA Secretary-General Naonori Okada said.
Around 30 or so JAZA members have a total of roughly 250 dolphins in their facilities, Okada said.
It is not known how many came from Taiji, but Japanese aquariums buy an average of 20 dolphins from there every year, he added.
If the majority of members agree to continue obtaining dolphins from Taiji, JAZA will be kicked out of the world body. That could have a far-reaching impact on facilities that do not have dolphins in their collections, as expulsion means member organizations will lose access to the global database of rare animals.
“WAZA keeps a directory of the pedigree of animals, much like a resident registry for people,” he said. “If zoos keeping the lesser panda in Japan want to breed them with zoos overseas, or want to exchange animals, for example, they might encounter difficulty if they lose access to the database.”
Leaving WAZA “would also mean we would no longer be able to attend international conferences, making it hard to keep up with the latest information,” he said.
Meanwhile, if JAZA members agree to stop buying dolphins from Taiji, they would have to expand their ability to breed dolphins from their own stock, or step up exchanges and breeding with each others’ animals, he said.
“The impact will not be felt tomorrow, but could come in the long run, as repeated breeding within the same facilities could lead to biological problems,” such as birth defects, he said.
The April 22 decision has been something of a disappointment to JAZA, as it had been complying with requests from WAZA to make dolphin catches less stressful for the animals for more than 10 years, he said.
According to Okada, WAZA did not take issue with the use of dolphins from Taiji for years, though it proposed methods to capture them more humanely. But WAZA recently hardened its stance and around 2014 it started asking JAZA to cease obtaining animals from Taiji, he said, when public protests intensified against Taiji’s cull for dolphin meat.
“The capturing of dolphins for food and for aquariums have been separated, and we have asked fishermen to set aside a period during which dolphins are caught only for aquariums,” he said. “We have also asked them not to chase a big group to avoid panic, and not to chase them too persistently.”
Reaction from the domestic zoos and aquariums has been mixed. At Kamogawa Sea World in the city of Kamogawa, Chiba Prefecture, spokesman Yoshikazu Yamaguchi said it is hard to gauge the potential impact of the ban on Taiji dolphins.
The aquarium, which is famous for its dolphin shows, currently has 13 dolphins, of which four were captured at Taiji. The rest were born at the aquarium.
“The last time we bought wild dolphins was in 1999, when we bought two from Taiji,” Yamaguchi said. “We have been able to breed successfully on our own since. But we will have to consider a lot of factors over the long run, such as the risks of creating too-strong blood connections among the dolphins.”
On the other hand, if JAZA loses WAZA membership, the aquarium could have problems keeping some of the rare animals at the aquarium — such as killer whales grampus and belugas — as they are not available in waters close to Japan and would need to be bred with foreign-sourced individuals, he said.
Higashiyama Zoo and Botanical Gardens, run by the city of Nagoya, meanwhile, said the expulsion from WAZA will have “zero” impact, as the zoo itself is a direct member of WAZA. Several other zoos in Japan are, like Higashiyama, concurrently members of WAZA, said zoo official Kokichi Taya.