Whales and dolphins were once the subject of hunting and capture in the United States, and California coastal communities were no exception. Several spots in southern and central California thrived on hunting whales for lamp oil and machinery lubricant from the 1800’s to as late as the early 1970’s. Despite the mammals being slow to reproduce, making it harder for their populations to recover, by 1874, several thousand whales were estimated to have been killed and processed by shore whalers from San Diego to Crescent City. When commercial whaling launched in the 1900’s, global whale populations were decimated to a far greater extent than shore whaling ever did (where boats rarely traveled more than ten miles from land).
When the captivity industry kicked off in the 1960’s, pilot whales and other dolphins were even captured off the southern California coast for dolphinariums! Thankfully, several years later, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972, public education and changing attitudes have helped dolphins and whales to be loved and protected by many in the U.S!
Southern California has transformed from a place of capturing dolphins and hunting whales into a dolphin and whale watching hotspot! The coastline between Santa Barbara and San Diego is host to some of the densest populations of dolphins anywhere in the world. Huge pods of hundreds (or even thousands) of common dolphins can be seen here, in addition to bottlenose dolphins, Pacific white-sided dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, humpback whales, gray whales, blue whales, fin whales and minke whales!
Just up the coast in central California, Monterey Bay also has a similar story. From the mid 1800’s to as late as 1971, several species of whales were being hunted. However, on September 18, 1992, The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary was designated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act. Thanks to time for recovery and the bay’s unique submarine canyons, the ecosystem has made a comeback!
Hundreds of humpback whales congregate in the bay during the summer to feed on massive schools of bait fish. An abundance of other marine mammals such as blue, fin, minke and gray whales, orcas, Risso’s dolphins, common dolphins, Pacific white-sided dolphins, northern right whale dolphins, harbor porpoises, sea lions, sea otters and harbor seals inhabit the bay during different parts of the year. There are several whale watching and eco-tour companies thriving around the bay as well. Monterey Bay is now regarded as one of the best places in the world to see wild marine mammals!
On the other side of the Pacific, is another story. Whales and dolphins unfortunately do not have the same protections in the coastal waters off Japan. As Dolphin Project’s Cove Monitor team documents each year, several species of dolphins are subject to slaughter and brutal live-capture for the dolphinarium industry. It’s hard to believe that such horrific things happen to dolphins on the other side of the same ocean.
The most shocking aspect of the dolphin drive hunts is that dolphinariums sustain the hunts by purchasing wild-caught dolphins. A live dolphin sold to a dolphinarium brings in a much higher profit than a dead dolphin sold as meat. The captivity industry is the primary force driving the hunts, thus, the best way to end both the slaughter and capture is to NOT buy a ticket to a dolphin show.
In Japan, the main purpose of the dolphin hunt is largely publicized as to provide dolphin meat to the Japanese people – but only a small minority of people in Japan actually eat the meat. This leads to another essential aspect to the dolphin hunt; from a fisherman’s perspective, the dolphins eat too much fish. Overfishing is a growing problem all over the world, as multiple species of fish, sharks and other marine species are largely on the decline. The Japanese fishermen- supported by their government are wrongly blaming the dolphins and whales for this depletion. Although Japanese media often depicts dolphin hunters as victims whose “tradition” and “culture” are being spotlighted by foreign activists, the modern dolphin hunts are not about providing meat for the Japanese people. It is about profiting from the captivity industry and eradicating dolphins to make the oceans’ fish available for themselves.
From a conservation standpoint, the sustainability of the dolphin slaughters also comes into question. Losing keystone species in the food web could lead to ecosystem collapse. With so many cultures around the world that depend on food from the seas, it’s immensely important to help the marine ecosystems stay in balance.
In the U.S. and other western countries, we take information and updates on the drive hunts for granted. If more Japanese people had access to the same information, they might help end it. This past season, Japanese activists came to Taiji and pleaded with the hunters to stop, and in another case even filed a lawsuit against Taiji.
For the dolphins and other whales that swim in the waters around Japan, hope lies in peaceful education and outreach, as well as in eco-tourism for a similar transformation from whale and dolphin hunting to whale and dolphin watching. There are several great dolphin and whale watching spots in various parts of Japan, including Mikura Island, Aomori, the Amakusa marine sanctuary, the Ogasawara Islands, Zamami Island of Okinawa and the Shiretoko peninsula of Hokkaido. Promoting responsible ecotourism of wild dolphins and whales as an alternative to dolphinariums is a positive way to oppose the captivity industry. It’s also a great way to show the world that dolphins and whales are worth more alive, wild and free!
Responsible education on the horrors of the captivity industry, along with learning about the importance of healthy ecosystems, including wild dolphin populations is vital. Let’s work together towards a future where all dolphins and other whales are free, and their marine habitats, thriving!
Featured image: Tracie Sugo