A few years back, the normally sleepy town of Taiji in Wakayama Prefecture was filled with activists furious with its traditional dolphin hunt, which was featured in “The Cove,” a 2009 Academy Award-winning documentary.

But as the fury ebbs, the town is now betting its future on dolphins.

“It was a bit wild back then — we never knew what was going to happen,” says dolphin hunter Mitsunori Kobata. He shakes his head as he recalls when foreign activists descended on his small hometown.

There was the time a dozen people surrounded his pickup truck on the way to work, penning him in and accosting him until a policeman could make the 30-minute drive from the next town over. Or when the activists marched through town waving a giant black flag bearing a cross and bones, or when they stopped children on their way to school to show them bloody pictures of whales and dolphins.

Western protesters had been coming to Taiji, one of the nation’s last active whaling towns and home to two dozen dolphin hunters like Kobata, since at least the 1980s. But this was different. After “The Cove,” which used hidden cameras to capture bloody footage of the local hunts, their numbers surged. The town of 3,000 was inundated, and while there was little outright violence, angry confrontations with fishermen and whalers were common.

Now, the fury over “The Cove” is fading. The activists have largely stopped coming, and Taiji is spurning international criticism against its dolphin hunts with a number of bold initiatives. The town is pursuing projects like a new sister town relationship with a town in the Faroe Islands that also hunts dolphins; a five-year, nearly $15 million deal with Chinese aquariums to supply hundreds of live dolphins and training; and a bold initiative to convert a local bay into a massive dolphin pool.

Going global

“My goal is to turn Taiji into a world-class research center for dolphins and whales,” says Taiji Mayor Kazutaka Sangen, who hints that the town’s relationship with the animals may one day shift from hunting them to something different. “The local whales and dolphins are our only natural resource, and we will continue to rely on them in the future.”

After Sangen and other officials took several trips last year to Klaksvik, a small town in the Faroe Islands that has also been targeted by activist groups for its dolphin hunts, the two towns signed an agreement to “enhance a close exchange in various fields, such as business, tourism, culture and education.”

Taiji has also leveraged the region’s deep political and economic ties to China. Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, the venerable Wakayama representative in the Diet, has famously fostered business ties between his district and Beijing. After Taiji fishermen and politicians traveled to China as part of meet-and-greet trips organized by Nikai, the town signed a ¥1.5 billion contract with a network of aquariums in the country.

The contract stipulates that Taiji, which operates one of Japan’s oldest aquariums, will provide extended training on how to care for dolphins in captivity, as well as up to 60 animals per year. A rotating team of Chinese trainers now lives in town to receive instruction at the Taiji Whale Museum, and trainers from the town also spend extended stints in China. While profits from the hunts have largely gone to the fishermen or middlemen in the past, the income from this deal will go directly into the town coffers for public use.

Declining catches

Meanwhile, Taiji continues to develop its own dolphin and whale facilities. As part of the mayor’s 30-year plan to convert his town into a cetacean research center, Taiji is gradually working to convert Moriura Bay, twice the area of Yankee Stadium in New York City, into a giant dolphin pool.

About 50 dolphins, purchased from the drive hunts, are kept in a steadily expanding network of sea cages in the middle of the bay, fed by a small army of trainers who haul fish out by boat several times each day. Having cleared all local boats and businesses from the area, Taiji will soon begin construction on a roughly 400-meter net to stretch across the mouth of the bay.

The shift by Taiji toward research and development comes as the annual dolphin catches decline. Environmental groups like the Oceanic Preservation Society, the group behind “The Cove,” have attributed this to international pressure on the hunts.

Fishermen like Kobata, however, say it is the environment. The oceans around Taiji are drastically changing, making all fishing activities more difficult. This year, the Kuroshio — the north-flowing ocean current that runs off the coast of Japan and attracts the plankton, fish and squid on which dolphins feed — is six times farther out than normal, a phenomenon that has hurt many of the fisheries in Taiji and surrounding towns.

Dolphins and whales are hunted in several communities across Japan. The latest data from the Fisheries Agency show that in 2015, Taiji’s hunts captured 891 dolphins and small whales, a third of the 2,648 total for Japan. Taiji’s fishermen are the only ones who actively practice drive fishing, allowing them to hunt the animals for both meat and capture.

In recent years, live catches have accounted for 70 percent of the revenue from the Taiji dolphin drives, which typically bring in between ¥100 million and ¥200 million before expenses. The hunts receive broad support from the domestic press, which links them to the town’s centuries-long tradition. But at the same time, demand for dolphin meat is falling nationwide.

Homegrown protests

Activists acknowledge this tradition but say it is unconnected to the modern dolphin drive hunts, in which a small fleet of modernized boats pursue pods of dolphins by banging on metal poles placed in the water, creating a wall of sound to drive them into shore to kill or capture.

Many activists remain committed to ending Taiji’s drive hunts, especially the practice of capturing animals live for sale to aquariums. In the West, prominent aquariums such as the Vancouver aquarium and the Baltimore aquarium have announced they will no longer keep dolphins and whales in captivity.

“It is getting much harder to get attention and raise funds for awareness” for activities in Taiji, says one veteran U.S. activist, who has visited over 20 times since seeing “The Cove,” and came again this year. “But the movement to free dolphins from captivity has become a worldwide movement and will come to Japan — it’s just a matter of time.”

A fledgling movement to free captive dolphins and other zoo animals has begun in domestically, and Japanese activists held several small demonstrations in Taiji this year, along with larger marches in Osaka and Tokyo.

“We are careful not be associated with the foreign activist groups,” says organizer Sayumi Yamaguchi, who engages with local police and authorities before her events. “Our movement is still small, but it is steadily growing.”

Still, these days dolphin hunter Kobata doesn’t have much trouble. He and other members of the Isana Cooperative — the name comes from an old Japanese word for whale — hunt nine species of local dolphin from September through February each year. In the season that ended in February, a steady presence of two or three foreign activists quietly filmed and broadcast the hunts online, but made no attempts to engage the fishermen.

The town and its residents now enjoy the protection of a dedicated contingent of police and coast guard members, who in turn are supported by the prefectural and central governments, including the Fisheries Agency, the National Police Agency and even the Immigration Bureau, which has blocked many foreign activists from entering the country.

Even the ruling LDP has become closely involved. Last month, dozens of young members of the party, which staunchly supports the hunts, held a two-day meeting in Taiji and swore to protect the town against foreign interference. The town provided a lavish buffet of local dishes, including fried whale bacon and dolphin stir-fry, and the group drank to a toast from Diet member Keisuke Suzuki, who declared “We must keep the foreign activists out of Taiji!”

So while international protests continue, local activists occasionally visit, and vitriol boils online on social media, calm has returned to Taiji. Residents say the recent spike in activism is just the latest in a long line of travails faced by the old whaling town.

“Taiji is strong because everyone is so closely bonded together,” says Teruto Seko, a former dolphin hunter and longtime whaler. He speaks to a reporter before bowing at the grave of his father, which is shaped like a whale and reads, “I hunted whales my whole life, and have not a single regret.”

Seko’s family is descended from Taiji’s traditional whalers of old, who hundreds of years ago pursued their prey in dozens of small rowboats, using nets to entangle whales and hand-thrown harpoons to finish them off.

Ancient shrines and stone monuments throughout the town attest to the trials the town has endured — deadly tsunami, a massive fire, a freak typhoon that wiped out most of the whaling fleet over a century ago, and local whale boats destroyed by U.S. submarines during World War II.

“Taiji has seen its share of crises,” he says. “But they always pass.”

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