Taiji, Japan “The Cove”

Image of dolphin tail in net taken from Taiji Japan dolphin hunts

A Small Town With A Big Secret

Each year from approximately September 1 to March 1, a large-scale hunt of dolphins takes place in the small village of Taiji, Japan, as featured in the 2010 Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove. During this six month-long hunting season, dolphin hunters utilize drive hunt techniques to herd large numbers of dolphins to shore, resulting in their capture or death.

The captured dolphins may be selected for live trade to aquariums and marine parks for display, while others are slaughtered for their meat. The price for live captures is many times higher than those killed.

The pod is no match for the fleet of hunting boats | Credit: DolphinProject.com

About The Hunts

The six month dolphin-hunting season is authorized by the Japan Fisheries Agency and regulated by an annual quota for certain species. The local fishing union organizes and participates in the hunts each year, with support from captive facilities and their trainers to assist in the dolphin selection process.

Who is killing the dolphins?

The capture of dolphins in Taiji is carried out by about 26 fishermen, and the dolphins are legally killed according to permits from the government. Most of the people in the town of Taiji have nothing to do with the hunts, nor do the Japanese people as a whole.Drive_Boats_Cove_RWilliams_10-12

Why are they killing dolphins?

A main stated purpose of the dolphin hunt is to provide dolphin meat to the Japanese people, though it is not widely popular and only a small minority of people in Japan actually eat the meat.

During a meeting with the Taiji fishermen in January 2004, we were also told that in addition to hunting dolphins for their meat and for sale to the dolphinarium industry, they hunt them “as a form of pest control.” Faced with the global issue of overfishing due to unsustainable commercial practices over decades, the fishermen now blame dolphins for their exploitation of ocean resources. As an island nation, Japan has numerous reasons to rely on the sea for its food security, and therefore encourages both the hunting and consumption of wild dolphins.

What is a drive fishery?

The term “drive fishery” derives from the method of driving, or herding dolphins into a designated area for slaughter or selection. We avoid the term “drive fishery,” as it leads many to believe that we are talking about fish rather than large marine mammals. Therefore “dolphin drive hunt” is a more accurate description. The annual dolphin drive hunt in Taiji is one type of coastal whaling conducted in Japan.



Why Dolphin Hunting Should End

The hunting of any species en masse is troubling for environmental reasons. The ocean ecosystem is a carefully balanced network of symbiotic life; removing large numbers of apex predators, such as dolphins, can upset that balance and affect overall marine health. Unlike fish, dolphins are mammals and reproduce slowly, making it more difficult for a population to be restored. 

Dolphin Hunting Is Not For Subsistence or Survival

As mentioned earlier, dolphin meat is not a popular food item in Japan, though it is somewhat of a local delicacy in certain regions of the country. It is not considered a main food staple or widely distributed throughout the nation. In addition, serious health concerns have been raised about consuming dolphin or whale meat, due to the toxins that are stored in the fatty tissue of these apex predators. Mercury contamination has been documented in dolphins, similar to tuna.

Dolphin Hunting Is Not Traditional

Taiji is a traditional whaling town, but in a different sense. In the past a single whale would be driven into a net by boats rowed by crews of men. The meat would be shared among the town’s citizens, and only a few whales were hunted each year.

Utilizing a fleet of motorized boats to herd hundreds of dolphins at a time is a newer practice, beginning in the late 1960s. Given that captured dolphins are sold for live captive display indicates that this is a commercial activity, not a traditional subsistence hunting method for community survival.

The hunts are driven by profit from captivity

A single bottlenose dolphin sold to a marine park can generate several thousand dollars for the dolphin hunters, as opposed to several hundred dollars for a slaughtered dolphin’s meat. That captured dolphin will be trained to perform in shows or swim with paying tourists, earning hundreds of thousands for its owners during its lifetime. Ultimately, the hunts are not driven by the need for sustenance, or tradition, but rather the desire to profit from the exploitation of natural resources.

Brutality in the Cove as bottlenose dolphins are selected for “life” in captivity, Taiji, Japan
Dolphin Project Cove Monitors scan the horizon for signs of a dolphin drive, Taiji, Japan.

What We Do In Taiji

Dolphin Project is the only organization to have had a consistent ground presence in Taiji since 2003, documenting and livestreaming the hunts in hopes of raising awareness of this practice. We also collaborate with various local Japanese activists who are working to end the hunts. Dolphin Project is funding several lawsuits which are currently in litigation in Japanese courts.

The Challenges We Face

We are always asked why we don’t intervene to stop the hunters. The hunts are closely guarded by the police and Coast Guard. It is considered a lawful economic activity, and we violate the law if we interfere in the process. If a boat gets too close to the dolphin drive, they are intercepted by Coast Guard vessels. Any effort to steer dolphins out of the area (such as with a noise-making device placed in the water) would be detected and found by the fishermen or the Coast Guard, who would locate and remove it. It is also likely that our Cove Monitors would be arrested and/or deported for any interference in the dolphin hunts.

The Absence of Laws Protecting Dolphins

The hunts are specifically authorized by the Japanese Fisheries Agency at the national level, so there is no local, regional, or national law against the activity. The police maintain a presence to ensure that activists do not interfere with the hunts.

Internationally, there are no laws to protect dolphins and other toothed whale species either. While the International Whaling Commission does exist, it functions as an international governmental organization created by convention, meaning that it is created by agreement among member states. If a country does not join the convention, it does not agree to be bound by the regulations. Japan left the IWC in July of 2019 to resume commercial whaling, so it is no longer subject to the rules set out by the Convention.

Notably, the IWC also has never regulated the class of “small cetaceans,” which include the species targeted in Taiji. Despite several requests over the years and the opinions of some member countries, the body has never adopted hunting regulations on these small cetaceans. Therefore, this body has no ability to impact or legislate the hunts.

The other international mechanism to regulate the hunts is the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES regulates the trade of animals or animal products based on listed Appendices of species according to extinction threat. All species targeted in Taiji are listed in Appendix II, meaning that international trade is permitted so long as the exporting country’s agency determines that it does not threaten the species’ survival, meaning Japan’s own Fisheries Agency. As with many aspects of international law, national sovereignty plays a major—though at times self-serving—role.

The Captivity-Slaughter Connection

By doing business with the dolphin hunters, dolphinariums maintain the dolphin drive hunts. A live dolphin sold to a dolphinarium brings in a much higher profit than does a dead dolphin sold as meat, which brings in about $600. In Taiji, live bottlenose dolphins have been sold for as much as $152,000 USD each. The captivity industry drives the dolphin slaughter, a connection which is hidden to most of the public that innocently visits a marine park or swims with a dolphin on vacation.

Culture Quandaries

There are a range of complicated issues that surround the hunts, ranging from the ethics of animal consumption to xenophobia. Our mission is centered on ending the mass extermination of dolphins through public awareness, and protecting the health of the species’ populations in the wild. Our organization is adamantly opposed to generalized criticism of the Japanese people or culture as a whole; rather, our emphasis is on the governmental and private decision-makers who enable and profit from the hunts.

Comparisons to Animal Farming

Cows, pigs and other farm animals are also consumed in large numbers in Japan, but animal welfare laws– which do not apply to dolphins–exist to ensure humane slaughter practices. In addition, the hunting of wild species, as opposed to domesticated and farmed animals, generates great concern for species conservation. While none of the dolphin species being killed in Japan’s waters are currently considered endangered, local extinction of populations of these dolphins is quite possible, which would further cause harm to the local marine ecosystem.

Why Boycotts Don't Work, But Empowerment Does

Dolphin Project does not believe that a boycott of Japanese products would be effective or helpful. The number of people within Taiji, to say nothing of the entire nation of Japan, involved in the hunts is incredibly small. Condemning an entire country for the acts of a few is inappropriate.

Many people within Japan are inadequately informed about the hunts, and know virtually nothing of the slaughters. This is by design, as the government actors and hunters have their own agenda, and use culture as a shield to keep the Japanese public from understanding the issue. Our goal is to make the facts known, not to tell people what to believe or what to do. We support the Japanese public’s right to know about the hunts and to make their own decisions about whether to support this action. We believe that change comes from working with people, not against them, and that it is ultimately the people of Japan who hold the power to take action and end the hunts.

Japanese activists at the Taiji Whale Museum


Understanding the intelligence and complexity of these species, as well as how they behave in the wild helps us understand that their natural ranges in the open ocean are where they thrive. It is vital that we continue to spread awareness about dolphins to help end exploitation in captivity, and to help wild dolphin populations stay healthy!

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