The Japanese fishing village with blood on their hands

Taiji may appear to be a charming little fishing village, but it has a dark and violent tradition of hunting dolphins. After being exposed to the world over a decade ago it seems very little has changed despite strong controversy and opposition.

A pod of dolphins similar to those hunted by the Taji fishermen

To an unsuspecting visitor the traditional architecture, quaint harbour and crystal clear waters of Taiji make it seem like a peaceful paradise. But for years the local people have been hiding a dark and bloody secret which has only recently been exposed. Every year the fishermen of Taiji ‘hunt’ hundreds and thousands of migrating dolphins by herding them into nets and either killing or capturing them. The technique known as ‘drive fishing’ is a cruel and violent process that can kill hundreds of individuals at a time and has been known to turn the waters of Taiji red with blood. Since being exposed by an Oscar winning documentary in 2009 the continued hunts have been widely condemned by conservation groups and members of the public. However the Japanese government has defended the ‘traditional’ practise and continued to allow its existence for over a decade. So what are the hunts really like? Why do they still happen? And who’s really to blame?

What is ‘drive fishing’?

The drive fishing technique carried out by the Taiji fishermen is well planned, precise and devastatingly effective. It begins with a small fleet of twelve motorized vessels heading out into the open ocean to locate the dolphins. This is something the locals are very good at as they have memorized the annual migration routes of the dolphins which very rarely change. When they have found a pod, sometimes as many as a hundred strong, they begin to drive them back towards Taiji. They do this by using specialized poles that are placed in the water and hit with hammers creating a wall of underwater sound. Dolphins are very sensitive to noise pollution and lose all sense of navigation as they panic from the loud sounds. As a result they swim directly back towards the village, often over several hours at high speeds severely depleting their energy reserves. Finally the exhausted and confused animals are herded like sheep into a narrow and shallow cove.

Caught in the nets
The nets begin to close in on the helpless dolphins

Once cornered boats form a blockade and release a large net that can be placed across the mouth of the cove trapping the dolphins inside. They are then either kept overnight or dealt with the same day. To finish off the job the nets are moved closer and closer to the shoreline until the dolphins are pinned down and either killed, which is the most likely outcome, or taken into captivity. Since being exposed to the world and increased press coverage of the events the dolphins are killed underneath large tarpaulin sheets so no one can see it happen. Fisherman claim that the death is quick and painless. It involves severing the spinal cord just below the blowhole with a sharp blade. However witnesses have claimed that the dolphins will often roll around the boat shrieking in pain and remain alive for minutes afterwards. The entire cove is often turned red by the amount of dolphin blood that gets spilled. Juvenile dolphins are spared and released back into the ocean. However without their mothers they will also most likely die.

The stats

The dolphin hunts take place over a 6 month season starting in September and finishing at the start of March. The most recent season has therefore just come to a close. It is hard to tell exactly how many dolphins were killed because researchers and conservationists are not allowed near the action. However we do have a reasonably good idea how many dolphins were hunted based on quotas set by the Japanese government. The 2018/19 quotas allowed for 2,040 dolphins from nine different species to be caught. Targeted species include bottlenose dolphins, stripped dolphins, short finned pilot whales, Risso’s dolphins and false killer whales. Although it can be hard to accurately assess the extent of the hunts today there is some record of past activity. Statistics released by the Japanese Fisheries Agency revealed that over a 13 year period since the turn of the century a total of 19,000 dolphins were captured in Taiji with 93% killed on site. To put that in context that is over six times the population of the village.

Why do they do it?

There are a number of factors behind why the fishermen hunt the dolphins and why it has been allowed to continue. The majority are killed to sell across the rest of Japan for their meat. However dolphin meat is considered to be a trashy food in Japan compared to the more luxurious whale meat. Therefore most dolphin meat is actually falsely labelled as whale and sold to help take pressure of Japan’s whaling industry, which has also been widely criticised. This is the main reason the Japanese government still support the hunts despite heavy opposition. They give out permits to the fishermen and set lenient quotas to allow it to legally continue. In the past fishermen have also described dolphins as a pest and claim hunting them is a way of controlling their population. Which is quite shocking considering how intelligent and well-loved dolphins are.

Dolphins are sold to aquariums and sea parks to perform in captivity

It may seem strange then that some dolphins are spared this fate at all. Instead the survivors are captured and kept in small pens before being sold on to aquariums. It is estimated that around a hundred individuals a year are captured in this way and sold into the aquarium industry across the world, but especially in Japan and China. Dolphins can be sold for as much as $40,000 to aquariums which is over 50 times more than what fishermen can sell the meat for. This is the main reason the hunts remain a profitable business for the fishermen. Therefore as much as the blame lies with the Japanese government and Taiji fishermen it is arguably the aquarium industry that is the main driver behind the hunts. This is what most people find so upsetting because not only are aquariums taking wild dolphins into captivity but they are also financing the slaughter of thousands more.

A shameful secret

Despite being made legal by the Japanese government the dolphin hunts were for a long time hidden away by the people of Taiji. For years tourists from outside Japan were discouraged from visiting the village and banned from taking any pictures or recordings. The local people have also historically treated outsiders very poorly and often intimidated people into leaving. Even within Japan a fractional percentage of the population were aware that the hunts took place there at all. That is because before being exposed to the world the hunts were even more brutal and destructive. The fishermen would repeatedly stab the dolphins with barbed spears and wait for them to bleed out in the water. There are also reports that fishermen and aquarium trainers would taunt captive dolphins tying their flukes to boats and covering up their blowholes. Although unconfirmed it is also likely that they would have been less inclined to spare the juveniles as well. On top of this the number of dolphins killed annually was significantly higher. It is therefore unsurprising that the hunts were kept a secret for so long.

‘The Cove’

The Taiji dolphin hunts were eventually exposed in 2009 thanks to an Oscar winning documentary titled ‘The Cove’. The film was directed by Louie Psihoyos who also filmed most of the documentary in secret whilst visiting Taiji. He used underwater microphones, drones and hidden cameras in rocks to document the hunting and its true violent nature. The film also follows former dolphin trainer turned activist Ric O’Barry as he tried to raise awareness of how dolphins are mistreated across Japan. The film is considered to be fairly radical in the world of eco-documentaries and raised lots of debate about the practise of filming in secret. However its fantastic cinematography, strong score and emotionally charged narrative made it very popular with critics. But more than that ‘The Cove’ lifted the lid on what happens in Taiji for the world to see and resulted in a massive spotlight for the sleepy seaside village.

The Cove poster
The movie trailer for ‘The Cove’. Caption reads “Man is their biggest threat and their only hope”

Public reaction

The reaction across the world to ‘The Cove’ was swift and very strong. Conservation groups and politicians unanimously condemned the hunts and activists from around the world descended on Taiji in their thousands to protest. Fishermen were frequently confronted and their homes, cars and boats were often surrounded for hours until the police could disperse the crowds. Some even tried to interrupt the hunts at sea but because fishermen had permits the coastguard would step in and prevent them from interfering. Japanese people also became very interested in what was going on in Taiji and when surveyed an increasing number admitted they had been put off consuming dolphin and even whale meat after learning what really happened there. However almost a decade on if you were to visit Taiji the chance of seeing a protestor are extremely small. As time has gone by and the Japanese government has continued to defend the hunts the spotlight has moved away to other issues around the world.

For years the Taiji fishermen took a vow of silence refusing to answer any questions or let people close to their activities. But as the outcry against what they were doing died down and people stopped coming to protest they eventually broke their silence. Talking to the Gaurdian in 2017 they said that “We think of animals as a resource, not that they are special creatures that can do things humans can’t do. It’s a totally different way of thinking. Whaling is the glue that holds this town together – it’s inseparable from local identity and pride”. They also go on to talk about the changes they have made to make to process more humane since ‘The Cove’ was released. However although it is clear they have made an effort to appease protestors it has done little to change the public perception of the hunts.

Red Cove
The tarpaulin used by fishermen does little to mask the bloody nature of the dolphin hunts

Moving forward

‘The Cove’ exposed the cruel and unnecessary nature of the Taiji dolphin hunts for the world to see. But in a way it has also given the fishermen a chance to normalize the behaviour and own the narrative. Now it is no longer a shameful secret but an ‘accepted’ practise in Japan, the town is moving forward with new plans. Last year the town signed a deal with Chinese aquariums worth $15 million to provide dolphins for the next five years. As part of that the village is building new sea cages to allow for more dolphins to be kept and trained in Taiji before being sold. The locals are also helping to establish a sister town in the Faroe Islands to help them expand their own dolphin huntingpractices. It seems that despite strong opposition Taiji will continue to rely heavily on their dolphin hunting in the future.

But just because the hunts continue today and may expand in the future doesn’t mean conservationists are not going to give up the fight any time soon. In February environmental campaigners filed the first legal challenge to the Taiji hunts in the form of a lawsuit with the Wakayama province justice system. They claim the behaviour of the fishermen still remains unnecessarily cruel and violates Japans animal rights act. A decision is not expected anytime soon but it signals that even though less is being done to oppose the hunts there are still those willing to stand up for the dolphins. Whatever happens it is likely that the Taiji dolphin hunts will continue to be a controversial topic for the foreseeable future.

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