From September through March every year, fishers in Taiji, Japan take part in the trapping, selling and slaughtering of thousands of dolphins for profit. They track and guide the mammals into what is known as the “cove” to effectively seal the fate of the highly intelligent and social animals. Once they are successfully captured, the dolphins are picked through to find the most attractive ones in the pod, which are then sold to marine parks for entertainment purposes throughout Japan, China and other countries. The rest are brutally killed for their meat. The annual hunt has sparked worldwide criticism and outrage, though it still continues, having begun this year on the first of September.
Former dolphin trainer-turned-activist Ric O’Barry founded the advocacy group Dolphin Project, which will be returning to Taiji for its 14th year to raise awareness for the cause, monitor the capturing and to record the inhumane slaughter of dolphins both young and old. O’Barry, who once trained the dolphin that appeared on the popular television show ‘Flipper,’ was featured in the 2009 Academy-Award winning documentary “The Cove,” which provided viewers a first-hand look at the horror dolphins experience throughout the process. During the often almost-too-hard to watch footage, mothers can be heard communicating with and soothing their young as the water around them runs blood red. The film also shows the dangers O’Barry and his team face from the fishers themselves, who do everything they can to prevent any type of access in, around or to the cove itself. This hasn’t changed and in fact, has only gotten worse. According to O’Barry, “Each year it gets more challenging, as they keep erecting barricades and restricting access to block our views, yet we don’t quit.” However, for the first time in 14 years, O’Barry will not be in Taiji with the other members of the Dolphin Project.
Having obviously rattled feathers by exposing the barbaric practice for what it is, Japanese officials have banned him from returning to the country after claiming he violated his tourist visa back in February. Many believe this is nothing more than an attempt to dissuade the greater public from joining his very vocal protest; O’Barry is one of the loudest and most influential critics of the yearly dolphin hunt. He refuses to let this setback deter him from his ultimate goal and is actively fighting the charges against him in the hopes of rejoining his team in Taiji.
Dolphins are known to be playful mammals, making them a favorite among whale-watchers. They will sky-hop, which involves a vertical jump out of the water, to catch a glimpse of their surroundings and synchronize their swimming with other members of their group. They live and travel in groups as small as five and up to several hundred and have social hierarchies much like humans do. Studies have shown dolphins go through “developmental stages” similar to humans as well, such as clinging to their parents when they are young, rebelling and behaving badly as “teenagers” and eventually settling into adult and family life. They use echolocation to identify prey, which consists mainly of fish and squid. By emitting high-pitched sounds that bounce off objects around them, they are able to hear the echoes, which they also use to navigate their travels. Think of it as a more sophisticated, underwater version of Google maps. Knowing this, it is hard to imagine anyone could be so cold-hearted simply for the sake of profit.
The method used to slaughter the dolphins is not only gruesome, it causes them excruciating pain. Before being outlawed, fishers used to wait a few days for the dolphins to calm down after being captured, then return and slit their throats, leaving them to bleed out. Deemed too cruel, fishermen are now required to drive a metal pin through their cervical region to sever their brainstem, which they claim results in an almost immediate death. However, a 2013 paper published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science stated this method causes such absolute terror and pain that it would not be a legal method of killing cows in the country.
One can only hope more people start to recognize this as an extremely important global issue that should be stopped sooner rather than later, because later might end up being too late. O’Barry remains hopeful. He said, “We see more and more people interested in learning about the slaughters and getting more involved to end the hunts and the captivity of dolphins for entertainment, which is a very positive development and one we hope continues to grow.”
I hope so, too.