Dolphin Hunts - A Dying Practice?

There are indications that the drive hunts were becoming a dying practice before the lucrative trade in live animals really took hold. Of the Japanese towns maintaining the practice, only Taiji has continued aggressively with the hunt in recent years.

Katsumoto, on Iki Island, essentially abandoned the hunts in the late 1980s, but has more recently indicated it might reopen them in order to capture live dolphins. In Futo, no hunts have taken place since 2004. In 2001, the Ito City Fishing Cooperative's Futo Branch had 500 members but only about 15 had experience of using their boats to drive dolphins in a hunt. These fishermen were fast reaching retirement age and finding it very difficult to find younger fishermen to carry on the practice.

Prior to the hunts being abandoned, reports suggest the work of these fishermen was proving increasingly difficult. To deflect attention away from the drive hunts, Japan's Fisheries Agency directed the Futo fishermen to conceal the 'unsavory' aspects of the hunts from public view, requiring them to screen off Futo's harbor where the dolphins were being killed or to kill the dolphins offshore. Reports suggest both requirements would have made the hunts unprofitable and in the latter case would have endangered the fishermen's lives.

Furthermore, after 1999, it was considered too expensive to send out 'spotter' boats to look for dolphins so the hunts could only be conducted opportunistically when dolphins were seen from a fishing boat already out at sea, or if they passed within sight of shore. Before the revival of the hunts in 2004, fuelled by the demand for live captures, all these factors resulted in a reduction in hunting to the point of abandonment. In Taiji, the trend is similar. Of the 550 members of the Taiji Fishing Cooperative, only 26 maintain the right to hunt dolphins, and only 13 boats have a license to conduct the hunts. In addition, the price of dolphin meat has also significantly dropped in recent years, possibly due to an increase in meat from the expanded scientific whaling programme for large whales, but also perhaps due to fears over adverse human health effects. Reports from the ground suggest the demand for dolphin meat is down.

There is more evidence that demonstrates the increased focus of the drive hunts on obtaining live animals for display by the aquarium industry. A memo circulated by Japan's Cetacean Conference on Zoological Gardens and Aquariums in August 2005 and written by the conference's Executive Secretary asked aquarium directors to complete a questionnaire to determine the extent to which aquaria want to display Pacific white-sided dolphins, a species not currently targeted by drive hunts, so the results could be used to justify a permit application for their capture at Taiji. The memo also referred to the need for discussion between fishermen and aquaria to only capture dolphins wanted for captivity. Taiji's plans to expand its use of small whales and dolphins, a five-year “Community Development Plan by Whale People using Whales,” has been approved by the Japanese Government under Japan's Local Revitalization Law, which entered into force in April 2005.

In October 2005, seemingly in response to increasing pressure from environmental organizations and concerned scientists, the World Association of Zoos and Aquaria (WAZA) issued a statement to its members, reminding them to “ensure that they do not accept animals obtained by the use of methods which are inherently cruel”, and noting that: “the catching of dolphins by the use of a method known as ‘drive fishing’ is considered an example of such a non-acceptable capture method.” It was hoped that this statement would be used to impose sanctions against any WAZA members that knowingly procure dolphins from the drive hunts.

Unfortunately, and instead, WAZA has brokered a concession with JAZA (the Japanese Association of Zoo and Aquaria) to develop a ‘Dolphin Management Protocol’ that allows for the herding of dolphins separate from the drive hunts in Taiji specifically for aquaria.  However, it appears that this protocol has merely increased the pressure on dolphin populations around Japan through promoting additional captures, while also resulting in the focused acquisition of bottlenose dolphins from the drive hunts in the month of September in Taiji, where JAZA facilities still associate with the drive hunts, but release those bottlenose dolphins that are not taken for aquaria.  In other words, JAZA facilities (a WAZA member) are still knee-deep in the killing cove in Taiji.  WDC believes that WAZA has failed to adequately address the drive hunts and continues to hold them complicit by continuing to support JAZA’s involvement in the hunts.

Read more about the captivity connection in WDC’s report, Driven by Demand (2006). You can read the report in both English and Japanese.