Japanese aquariums are actively seeking to breed dolphins after their association decided to ban drive hunts of the mammal in response to international criticism, but they face an uphill battle due to a lack of facilities and expertise.
The Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA), which introduced punitive measures against drive hunts in May amid criticism that the practice is cruel, estimated in 2011 that the population of dolphins would drop to 69 in 2030 if they were acquired only through breeding. At the end of 2014, the number of dolphins kept by Japanese facilities stood at 271.
Some say it will require 10 to 20 years for the breeding project to develop as keepers will need to build new facilities and accumulate experience.
“A dolphin is a sensitive animal. A baby dolphin can drown by getting stuck in the corner of a pool or die from the shock of being separated from its mother,” said Yasuharu Okuyama, a veteran staff member of Enoshima Aquarium in Kanagawa Prefecture with 28 years of experience.
Dolphins are usually key moneymakers at aquariums, but they cannot be used for shows over a period of more than three years when they are pregnant and breast-feeding babies, according to the Enoshima Aquarium.
The Enoshima Aquarium’s predecessor succeeded in dolphin breeding in 1959, becoming the first facility to do so in Japan. The aquarium also succeeded in 2012 in breeding a fifth generation of dolphins in captivity.
But not all aquariums have the same facilities or knowledge. Many of the 34 JAZA members with dolphins lack pools for breeding or keep only male dolphins, and only half of the baby dolphins born at Japanese aquariums survive the first month, according to JAZA.
A director of an aquarium in eastern Japan said breeding is “difficult in reality,” as “building one pool would cost hundreds of millions of yen.”
“There are many elements involved in breeding, such as the age of male and female dolphins and breeding know-how,” the director added.
JAZA is planning to establish a special committee to enhance breeding techniques and promote the exchange of male dolphins among members to avoid inbreeding. Artificial insemination is also being eyed as an option as it is difficult to transport the sea mammals.
JAZA had been forced to reconsider obtaining dolphins caught in drive hunts after the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums suspended its membership in April over the practice. The suspension was lifted last month after JAZA issued a ban on the hunts, practiced in Taiji, western Japan.
The method of herding dolphins into coves to capture them spurred controversy after the Oscar-winning 2009 U.S. documentary “The Cove” showed the bloody slaughter of the mammals in such a hunt.