Japanese dolphin fishermen invite Kennedy to see hunt for herself

February 11, 2014

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

TAIJI, Wakayama Prefecture--A senior official connected with the seasonal dolphin hunt here is defending the tradition as painless to the small cetaceans and is inviting U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy to see for herself.

The tweet by Kennedy last month criticizing the dolphin drive hunt in the town of Taiji has cast a fresh spotlight on the controversial practice.

“The method (of killing) causes them no pain,” said Yoshifumi Kai of the Taiji Fishermen's Cooperative. “We would like Ambassador Kennedy to come and visit to see the hunt for herself.”

Kai said fishermen in Taiji switched more than 10 years ago to a method that uses a 30-centimeter pick to kill them almost instantaneously.

In her tweet on Jan. 18, Kennedy lambasted the herding and killing of the dolphins by local fisherman, saying, “Deeply concerned by inhumaneness of drive hunt dolphin killing. USG (U.S. government) opposes drive hunt fisheries.”

Taiji is the only place in Japan where dolphins are herded into an enclosure where they are then slaughtered.

The dolphin season begins in September, lasting for about six months. About 1,000 dolphins are harvested each year.

The hunt involves a small fleet of boats sailing into nearby waters in search of dolphin pods.

Once one is spotted, the fishermen use metal rods, which they stick into the water and bang with a hammer to produce a noise to herd the dolphins into a small cove. Nets are used to block their escape.

The dolphin harvest in Taiji was thrust into global spotlight following the release of the film “The Cove,” which documented the hunt and went on to win an Academy Award in 2010.

The footage showing the waters turning red as the fishermen harpooned the dolphins drew international criticism.

Some people said the animals looked to be in pain. They also called the method inhumane because it sparked panic among the dolphins.

Following Kennedy’s tweet, U.S. media outlets began reporting on the dolphin hunting once again in a critical tone.

Coverage by CNN soon after the ambassador's criticism included the warning, “Warning, graphic video,” when footage of the hunt was aired.

The United States’ Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 tightly regulates whale and dolphin hunting, making some exceptions for minority populations whose forefathers traditionally hunted whales.

Some say Americans react more sharply to the hunting for dolphins, compared to whales, because dolphins are regarded as one of man’s best friends, given their high levels of intelligence.

Taiji is believed to be the cradle of Japan’s tradition of whale hunting. The nation’s first organization specializing in whale hunting was set up in the town in 1606.

Taiji Mayor Kazutaka Sangen tried to defend the whale hunt by explaining its origins.

“Our ancestors hunted whales for their very survival,” said Sangen, whose grandfather was the captain of a whaler. “Our history of whale hunting is different from that of the United States and European countries.”

In fact, the United States was at one time the world’s largest whale-hunting nation. That was until the middle of the 19th century when whale oil was a crucial source of fuel.

Commodore Matthew Perry's “Black Ships,” which helped end Japan’s isolationism, arrived in Japan in 1853 and 1854 reportedly to secure port privileges for American whalers.

Eventually, whale hunting began to decline in the United States and Europe, where they are now a protected species.

Dolphin hunting in Taiji is relatively new, though. The first dolphin hunts were conducted to catch rather than kill the sea mammals for an amusement show performed at the municipal Taiji Whale Museum, which opened in 1969. Even in recent years, around 100 dolphins a year are captured alive, to sell to other aquariums around Japan.

Since the dolphin hunt has drawn the attention of international animal protection groups, a little more than 10 foreigners visit the town daily, which has a population of about 3,500 people.

Most are members of the anti-whaling Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, who also call themselves the Cove Guardians.

They often take video of the dolphin hunt to release on the Internet in order to draw attention to the practice. They also regularly warn against eating dolphin meat, saying it contains high levels of mercury.

Some townspeople, too, are critical of the dolphin hunt.

“We don’t need to continue with the hunting, with all the criticism from the world,” said one resident.

But one of the fishermen said the hunt is an important source of income for local residents.

“Dolphins are big fish for us,” he said. “We go to sea to make our livelihoods by catching dolphins.”

(This article was written by Takayuki Kihara and Tetsu Kobayashi.)

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
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U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy (Asahi Shimun file photo)

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy (Asahi Shimun file photo)

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  • U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy (Asahi Shimun file photo)
  • Members of the anti-whaling Sea Shepherd Conservation Society take video of fishing boats driving dolphins into a cove in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, on Jan. 29. (Yuji Endo)

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