By Ric O’Barry
I first went to Taiji to see the dolphin slaughter in 2003, and, then as now, I was appalled by what I saw. The suffering of the dolphins in the drive hunts was the worst I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of suffering dolphins through the years.
Dolphin Project and I started waging our campaign all over the world to stop the killing of dolphins in Japan. We’ve built a strong team of staff, experts and volunteers to address the largest and toughest government-sanctioned dolphin kills in the world. The Japanese Fisheries Agency issues more than 19,300 permits annually to dolphin hunters in coastal towns, including Taiji, with the intention of wiping out the dolphins. Yes, extinction is the goal, as the Fisheries Agency has the Taiji fishermen believing that dolphins are eating all “their” fish.
I re-visited Taiji first in September (as I do every year) for the opening of the hunt season and, more recently, this past January, joining our dedicated volunteer Cove Monitors who are there onsite during the entire dolphin-hunting season. I can’t say enough about how much these volunteers have sacrificed in order to be in Taiji to broadcast word of the hunts to the world. Normally, the Taiji hunt season runs from Sept. 1st to April 1st every year.
But change is in the air! I was surprised and buoyed by how things are changing in Taiji now. For the first time, I think we are winning real changes for the dolphins.
The Dolphin Project Team and I have sought to avoid confrontations with the hunters and local authorities. We have focused our efforts on cultivating alliances with Japanese environmentalists and Taiji residents. This relationship building has been crucial to getting insider information about the hunts and to spread the word about the dangers of eating mercury-contaminated whale and dolphin meat, a subject that is deliberately ignored by the Japanese Fisheries Agency and media.
I can’t stress enough how important our Japanese support is. The Japanese people are not responsible for the dolphin hunts – most of them don’t even know such hunts exist, as the Japanese Fisheries Agency, with a too-compliant media, do everything they can to hide the slaughters.
Japan is still a closed society, where Westerners are not welcome to press for change. I could have tried to interfere with the Taiji hunts many, many times, but that would only result in my being deported. Our Japanese allies have told us repeatedly that if we get arrested, even if we are innocent, they would not be able to work with us anymore. Sadly, that is just the way things are in Japan.
So, instead of confrontation, we strive to maintain good relations with the local police. They realize that we are sincere and not a threat to the Japanese people. They have their own orders, but I have always found the police of Wakayama Prefecture to be professional and fair.
We also have good relations with many Japanese allies – both environmental groups and individuals, including several residents in Taiji. They cannot speak out publicly, because the Japan Fisheries Agency and the community would react against them, threatening their livelihoods. But they can pass us information we would not otherwise receive.
Our Japanese allies report that the demand for dolphin meat in Japanese markets has dropped considerably since our campaign started, especially with the opening of The Cove movie in Japan. In 2010, Japanese authorities admitted that nationwide whale meat sales were down by 15 percent, as approximately 5,000 tons of frozen excess meat sat in storage. In 2011, the tonnage in cold storage rose to 5,400 tons, despite low whale kills that year, according to a recent blog in The Japan Times. Dolphin meat is often mislabeled and sold to Japanese consumers as “whale” meat.
Most importantly, it appears that the Taiji hunts are slowing down, sparing the lives of hundreds of dolphins. The killing season usually lasts through the end of March, and sometimes into April. But Japanese sources report that this year the dolphin hunts may end by late-February, weeks earlier than usual, due to the lack of demand for dolphin meat. If so, it would mark the fifth straight year that the number of dolphins killed in Taiji has declined since our Dolphin Project Campaign started.
We are also regularly observing Taiji dolphin hunters releasing some of the dolphins and even driving them back out to sea. Before The Cove came to Japan and our campaign started to grow in Japan, I never saw dolphins released or chased back out to sea. My son Lincoln and I first reported this on Animal Planet’s Blood Dolphin$. This is a major change, again showing the poor market conditions for dolphin meat.
One of our friends, a Japanese journalist, was told last year by the Mayor of Taiji that all the Japanese media stories we’ve generated about mercury were hurting their sales of dolphin meat.
What’s more, the March 11 earthquake and tsunami wiped out several major ports in northern Japan, stopping, for a time at least, the harpooning of thousands of Dall’s porpoises offshore in those areas. So, this year, dolphin meat from those areas is largely no longer available on the market, but the Taiji fishermen are still having trouble selling their bloody (and contaminated) catch.
The Taiji dolphin drive hunts are waning, but they cannot stop soon enough for our Save Japan Dolphins Campaign!
It is a long grind to try to stop a major environmental horror like the Taiji dolphin drive hunts. Our opponents, the Japanese Fisheries Agency and the Taiji dolphin hunters, combined with the international Blood Dolphin$ captivity trade, are not nice people. It is a billion dollar International industry and will not go quietly.