Japan aquariums vote to stop using dolphins from Taiji

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

The Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums announced Wednesday that it will ban its members from buying dolphins caught off the town of Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, amid protests from activists and pressure from a global industry body to stop the practice.

JAZA reached the decision earlier in the day at an emergency board meeting where votes from all of its 152 members — 89 zoos and 63 aquariums — were counted.

Of them, 149 members voted. Of the 142 valid votes, 99 voted in favor of staying in the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) by stopping the purchase of dolphins from Taiji, while 43 voted against it. The breakdown of votes among zoos and aquariums was not made public.

“JAZA board decided that JAZA will prohibit its members to acquire wild dolphins caught by drive fishing in Taiji and to take part in their export and sale,” JAZA said in a statement addressed to WAZA. “It is our wish at JAZA to remain as a member of WAZA and thereby contribute for the zoos and aquariums.”

The Japanese group decided at the board meeting that it will express its wish to stay in the world body, and will stop procuring dolphins from drive fishing. It will also step up cooperation among member organizations to breed dolphins they keep, the group said.

However, JAZA Chairman Kazutoshi Arai told a news conference that the decision was on whether to stay in the world body, not on condemning or endorsing the fishery drives at Taiji, which is also known as a whaling town.

“We are not criticizing or condemning drive fishing at Taiji or the whaling culture,” he said. Arai added that the group’s position is that “the drive hunt itself is not cruel.”

Wednesday’s decision followed an April 22 announcement by the Switzerland-based world association that it had suspended JAZA’s membership on the grounds that it is unethical and an affront to animal welfare to obtain cetaceans from the Taiji drives.

The world governing body had given JAZA until Thursday to stop buying dolphins from Taiji, or face expulsion.

About 30 JAZA members have a total of roughly 250 dolphins in their facilities. While it is not known how many of these came from Taiji, Japanese aquariums have bought an average of 20 dolphins from the town every year, JAZA Secretary-General Naonori Okada has said.

The Japanese body’s decision to stay in the world governing body means JAZA members will remain connected to a global database of rare animals it maintains.

Without access to the database, JAZA members would have difficulty obtaining breeding partners from collections overseas.

But now that wild-caught dolphins from Taiji are off limits, aquariums in Japan will either need to expand their captive breeding programs or step up exchanges and breeding with dolphins kept by other institutions.

Members were allowed to cast ballots by email or fax until 5 p.m. Tuesday.