The Taiji + Captivity Connection

Trainers take dolphin away

Trainers Involved In Selection

Unsettling as it may be, dolphin trainers are a part of the captive selection process in Taiji, sorting through the wild dolphins netted in the cove to identify candidates for sale to marine parks and aquariums around the world. By doing business with the dolphin hunters, marine parks sustain 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 offers the primary economic motive for the dolphin slaughter. This reality reinforces the idea that the drive hunts are inextricably tied to the captivity industry, and that the desire for captive dolphins fuels the continuation of these captures.

The Role of Trainers in the Hunt

Dolphinariums that purchase dolphins from Taiji may suggest they are “saving” the dolphins from slaughter. However, the fact is that they are fueling the dolphin hunt by making it tremendously profitable. Dolphin trainers and hunters work side by side to force the dolphins into shallow water for inspection, choosing the ones that can be used in dolphin shows and dolphin swim programs.

They are typically looking for young, unblemished female dolphins. They “save” only the ones that can be commercially exploited in the display industry. The rest are slaughtered.

Complicit in Cruelty

We have documented members of the international aquarium and zoo industry take part in aspects of the hunt beyond captive selection. Our team has observed trainers get in the water with the dolphin hunters, tying ropes around the dolphins’ tail flukes so that the fishermen could tie the dolphins to their boats on the way to the slaughterhouse.

The drive and captive selection process inflict multiple physical injuries on the dolphins, from shock to broken fins. The trainers frequently contribute to the harm by tackling the dolphins in the water and pursuing them against jagged rocks, and not once have we ever observed them attempt to protect or offer medical assistance to an injured dolphin.

Brutality in the Cove as bottlenose dolphins are selected for “life” in captivity, Taiji, Japan
After a grueling hours-long chase, a pod of Risso’s dolphins is slaughtered, Taiji, Japan

Where Taiji Dolphins Go

While many marine parks and associations have publicly disavowed the Taiji drive hunts, the dolphins captured in the process have made their way around the world over the years. Most of have remained within Japan, which has over 50 marine parks and swim programs.

Dolphin exports from Taiji have gone to China, Korea, Ukraine, Russia, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and the Philippines. U.S. aquariums like SeaWorld claim they don’t import dolphins from Taiji, but prior to a ruling by the NMFS stating that imports from Taiji, Japan, were illegal because U.S. law specifies that captures of marine mammals should be humane, small cetaceans like false killer whales were regularly obtained by SeaWorld, the Indianapolis Zoological Society, Miami Seaquarium, and the U.S. Navy.

Interactive Map of Current Taiji Dolphins in Captivity

Map Courtesy of Ceta-Base

What About Marine Parks that Don’t Currently Purchase Taiji Dolphins?

In recent years, a growing number of places around the world have banned importing dolphins from Taiji, or have banned captivity altogether. These are positive steps in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go. The dolphin captivity industry is very interconnected, and many dolphinariums that are not currently purchasing dolphins from Taiji still have international influence, or even have inconspicuous connections to dolphins captured in Taiji’s drive hunts.

Taiji Connections Through Dolphin Trainer Exchange Programs

Dolphinariums in the United States and Australia, as well as International Marine Animal Trainers’ Association (IMATA), have hosted programs to teach dolphin trainers from the dolphin training program of Osaka College of Eco and Animals. Since the college opened in 1994, their students have gone on to be employed by 90.8% of zoos and aquariums all over Japan, including a number of facilities that purchase or have purchased dolphins from Taiji.

In 2013, IMATA stated their opposition to dolphin drives, yet went on to state that “any individual who believes in IMATA’s mission and who supports its goals is welcomed into the membership. This includes extending membership to individuals who work for organizations that acquire dolphins from a drive fishery.” In 2017, they updated their Drive Fisheries Statement on their website, stating “IMATA strongly opposes the slaughter of whales and dolphins that occurs in drive fisheries. Individuals participating in the deliberate killing of dolphins in a drive fishery are not eligible for IMATA membership.” There was no mention made of individuals who work at facilities that acquire wild-captured dolphins, thus, it would appear such individuals appear would still be welcome to join the association.

Their membership statement and practices appear to contradict one another. IMATA has members from dolphinariums all over the world, including a number of dolphinariums in Japan. Additionally in the film Long Gone Wild, Dolphin Project Founder/Director Ric O’Barry and an on-the-ground team spotted western trainers at a marine park in China, the country, now being one of the biggest buyers of dolphins from Taiji drive hunts (film time stamp: 1:13:00).

Dolphinariums argue that these training programs contribute to improving the welfare of captive dolphins, and increase the success of captive breeding programs, thus lessening the need for wild-captured dolphins. In reality, these training programs enable more facilities to exploit dolphins, whether they are wild-captured or captive born.

The Influence of the Dolphinarium Business Model

Many dolphinariums in Western countries fail to address the copycat syndrome that has been taking place. There are striking similarities between the newly opened marine theme parks in Asia, and some of the most prominent marine parks in the United States. As one example of Western influence, a study on China’s theme park industry states: “With the course of China’s reforming and opening, people, especially those in East China cities, are influenced by consumerism and western thoughts, and the industries are updating, the society is under the transformation from production-oriented to consumer-oriented.” This influence spans far beyond just one country; the dolphinarium industry is global. As long as dolphin shows are promoted as a fun experience, dolphins will continue to be captured from the wild for new captive dolphin facilities all over the world.

captive dolphins kids against the glass

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