How Dolphins Are Captured in Taiji
The fishermen of Taiji have developed a highly effective method of locating, capturing and eradicating dolphins, sometimes as many as one hundred or more in a single day. The combination of ideal geographic factors, as well as a calculated hunting method specifically designed for mass capture, has created a dangerous situation for the population of wild dolphins off the coast of Japan.
Designed for Mass Capture
Just before sunrise, a fleet of 12 motorized boats leaves the harbor in search of wild dolphin pods, heading to deep water where the dolphins migrate. Along the coast is the Kuroshio Current, a warm water ocean current used as a migratory path for marine life. Dolphins have been using these paths for thousands, perhaps millions, of years following their food sources, making them an easy target for the hunters to locate. The fleet fans out for many miles offshore, beyond the horizon, and sometimes receives tips from other fishing boats about the location of a pod.
Trapping the Pod
When a pod is located, the hunters position their boats alongside each other behind the pod in an evenly-spaced formation. They lower stainless steel poles into the water, one on each side of each boat. The poles flare out at the bottom like a bell, which amplifies the sound produced as the hunters repeatedly strike the poles with hammers. The noise effectively creates a wall of sound underwater, and the dolphins find themselves trapped between this wall of sound and the shoreline.
To escape the sound, the dolphins swim away from the noise toward the shore. The dolphins panic, and with the loss of their navigational sense, the fishermen can drive them into a small natural cove near Taiji harbor. The process may take several hours, during which the dolphins grow exhausted. Once they are near shore, the hunters pull nets across the mouth of the cove to close off all avenues of escape, trapping the dolphins in. The dolphins may either be left overnight or “processed” the same day.
In the Cove
When the dolphins have been netted into the cove, they will either be brought onto the rocky beach for slaughter, or inspected as part of captive selection. The slaughter process may take hours depending on the size of the pod, as well as how difficult it is to bring each of the dolphins to shore. During this process, the remaining pod members are in visual and audial range of the slaughter of their family members, which likely only causes additional distress.
Captive selection is often a lengthy process, as marine park trainers are brought in to enter the water and evaluate the dolphins to determine which are viable candidates for live trade. In our documentation, the procedure is exhausting and terrifying, as up to five trainers will wrestle a dolphin to shore for transport to a sea pen if selected for live sale. In the case of large pods, the process may take multiple days. Bottlenose dolphins are most frequently selected for captivity, though other species may also be assessed.
Several species are occasionally held overnight, and tend to be “money dolphins’”–- those like bottlenose dolphins popular for captive display, though pilot whales are often held through the night as well. With slaughters, some drives can take hours, and by the time the fishermen have chased the dolphins into the killing cove, they want to call it a day. Instead of completing the hunt, they’ll return the following day to carry out the slaughters.
How Dolphins Are Killed in The Cove
The process of slaughtering the dolphins has evolved over time. When the The Cove was first filmed, fishermen killed the dolphins with long, sharp spears or hooks, causing the water in the cove to turn red with blood. While the methods have changed, there remain serious concerns about the cruelty of the method currently used.
Revised Killing Method
Since The Cove was released, the fishermen have altered their killing methods. They now pull the dolphins underneath a canopy of plastic tarps set up to prevent us from filming the slaughter. The hunters push a sharp metal spike into the dolphins’ necks just behind the blowholes, which is supposed to sever the spinal cord and produce an instant “humane” death. A dowel-like wooden cork is inserted into the wounds to minimize blood loss. The bodies are then loaded onto skiffs and brought to the fishermen’s union for processing.
Ongoing Welfare Concerns
Hidden camera footage showed that dolphins killed in this revised method did not die immediately, but rather continued to thrash in prolonged pain. Our Cove Monitors frequently hear the sounds of dolphins struggling under the tarps, and we have documented footage showing dolphins still alive and moving as they are transferred to the slaughterhouse. This generates extreme concern, as most animal welfare standards require an instantaneous and humane killing method that avoids unnecessary pain, fear, or suffering.
In a 2013 study which appeared in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, scientists criticized the methods used by the fishermen, stating that:
Our veterinary and behavioral analysis of video documentation of this method indicates that it does not immediately lead to death and that the time to death data provided in the description of the method, based on termination of breathing and movement, is not supported by the available video data.
Escaping the Hunters
For such intelligent species, it is difficult to fathom why the dolphins cannot outwit the hunters or evade them during the hunts. It is important to remember that these dolphins may have never encountered humans or nets in their lifetimes in the ocean, and therefore have no context for understanding how to overcome the overwhelming noise and pursuit.
Why Dolphins Don't Jump the Nets
When standing at the mouth of the killing cove in Taiji, we have often looked down at a pod of dolphins trapped in the killing cove. From above, it’s obvious that all the dolphins have to do is jump the nets, and they would be out of harm’s way. But the dolphins don’t have this advantage of seeing everything from above. They don’t know what’s on the other side of the nets.
To us, a jump would be a leap into safety. To them, it’s a leap into the unknown. It’s also important to keep in mind that nets and other artificial boundaries are foreign objects to wild dolphins. Living in a three-dimensional world, the only boundaries they know are the shoreline and the ocean’s surface. These are a natural boundary that dolphins understand. A net, on the other hand, is completely unfamiliar to them. They are probably afraid of this strange phenomenon and therefore stay away from it. Dolphins in captivity have to be trained to jump over things – it is not a natural behavior.
Why Dolphins Can't Escape
In our years of documenting, we have observed many instances in which a dolphin netted into the cove tries to swim to safety. However, after being pursued for miles at high speed, most dolphins are physically exhausted by the time they are herded into the cove. Like humans being forced to run a marathon, the increased exertion is depleting. That along with the terror of being pursued makes it difficult to sustain an effort to swim away.
Even so, we have also observed dolphins get across a net by sheer luck. For these social species, leaving the pod is not common, even– or especially– in times of danger. We once observed a juvenile pilot whale and an adult get beyond the nets, yet refuse to leave the rest of their family behind.
The hunters have numerous boats at the ready, and in all instances where a dolphin gets away, they are outmanned by the motorized vessels and herded back into the cove.
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!
Education is the first step to moving others to take action. Help spread the word about protecting dolphins!