Environmental campaigners have filed an unprecedented lawsuit in a bid to halt the so-called drive hunting of dolphins in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, arguing that the practice is cruel and illegal.
In drive hunting, fishermen force dolphins into a cove by beating on boats to disorient them. The panicked animals often get tangled in nets, suffocate and drown.
Activists say some dolphins smash into rocks and die of injuries, while others are killed by fishermen who thrust a long metal rod repeatedly into the part of the body just behind the blowhole to damage the spinal cord.
In the suit filed last week, the plaintiffs are demanding the governor of Wakayama Prefecture revoke a three-year drive hunting permit in the port town of Taiji.
The lawsuit is the first-ever legal challenge to the hunt in Taiji, according to a lawyer involved in the filing.
The practice was filmed in the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove,” which sparked controversy when it placed the annual hunt into the global spotlight.
Many in Japan felt the film unfairly targeted the town’s fishing community, but others were horrified by the disturbing footage.
The drive hunting of dolphins is conducted every year in Taiji for about six months starting in September. According to prefectural police, a total of roughly 600 protesters opposed to the hunting of dolphins and whales have visited the town over the five years since fiscal 2013.
The lawsuit argues that the hunting method violates Japan’s animal welfare act, which stipulates that animals shall not be abused or killed unnecessarily and that — when they must be killed — their pain must be minimized.
“Many Japanese see dolphins as fish and mistakenly believe the animal welfare act does not apply to them,” said Ren Yabuki, head of Life Investigation Agency, an environmental nongovernmental agency based in Nagano Prefecture, who brought the action along with a Taiji resident who asked for anonymity.
“I’ve seen many times that half-killed dolphins are taken away on small boats, thrashing about in pain,” Yabuki said, adding it can take 10 or 20 minutes, or even longer, for the animals to die.
The suit challenges the way the hunt is carried out, rather than all kinds of dolphin hunting.
It also claims fishermen are catching more dolphins than is allowed under legal caps.
No immediate comment was available from Wakayama officials on the lawsuit.
Defenders of the hunt say dolphins are traditionally caught for meat in Japan, that it is an important part of local culture and that dolphins are not endangered.
Nowadays, an increasing number of dolphins are being trapped and sold live for aquariums rather than being killed, as demand rises from China or elsewhere, Yabuki said.
Japan has strongly defended its hunting of dolphins and whales — a rare example of provocative diplomacy for the country, which has generally pursued an uncontroversial foreign policy since its World War II defeat.
It sparked outrage in December when it decided to withdraw from the International Whaling Commission, saying it would return to commercial whaling as part of its cultural heritage.