Whales and dolphins are ‘sentient’ - this means that they are conscious beings, capable of feeling pain and suffering physically and psychologically. This adds a whole new level to our thinking about the welfare and conservation issues associated with the hunting and killing of these mammals. What long-term emotional impact might there be for a dolphin who has witnessed the slaughter of her pod mates and survived the horror of the chase? What does this mean for those who are plucked from the chaos of the hunt to be sold to the marine park and aquarium industry?
My WDC colleague, Philippa Brakes has been working with Andy Butterworth, a veterinarian at the University of Bristol Veterinary School, US biologist, Courtney Vail and Diana Riess, professor at Hunter College in the US on a new scientific study which has just been published in The Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science (be warned, it’s quite a heavy read and the findings are extremely distressing). In it we reveal the potential for extreme psychological suffering for dolphins who witness and escape slaughter in cruel Japanese hunts.
We’ve pulled together scientific data detailing the physiological, behavioural, and socio-ecological impacts of the methods used to catch live dolphins for the display industry during the infamous hunts in ‘The Cove’ in the Japanese town of Taiji. In these ‘drive hunts’, dolphins are chased and pushed from the open sea into a small cove using a flotilla of fishing vessels and loud underwater noise created by fishermen banging hammers on metal poles to disorientate the dolphins.
We have demonstrated that the chase and encirclement tactics used by the fishermen have an immensely negative impact on those dolphins who witness and evade the cruel process, as well as those brutally killed or captured.
We draw on four decades of research showing that dolphins exhibit advanced cognition, high levels of self-awareness, social complexity, and evidence for cultural transmission (passing on information and learning from others in their social group). This research indicates that the methods used during the drive hunts harm not only the individuals captured, but can potentially result in short- and long-term welfare issues for dolphins in the pod since capture activities involve intensive harassment of large groups.
Even before the slaughter process begins in the drive hunts, the process of chase and capture is profoundly inhumane and this research shows that the drive hunt method cannot be conducted in a humane manner.
The potential for drive hunts to have a dramatic negative influence on the welfare of many more individuals than those who are killed doesn’t tend to get talked about at high-level policy discussions, where decisions are made. But WDC hopes we can bring an end to live captures of whales and dolphins from the wild by highlighting the potential serious and long-lasting negative effects for the wider group of individuals who are pursued and captured.
In addition to the obvious, traumatic physical impacts of drive hunts, which can include injury from becoming entangled in capture nets, or asphyxiating during the forced restraint and submersion of these air-breathing mammals - and less obvious physical effects from the use of sound in these hunts and prolonged and strenuous chase, capture and restraint - an often over-looked welfare aspect is the disruption to social groups.
In another review, soon to be published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science it is further argued that sociality is so important that it should be considered along with the accepted benchmarks of nutrition, environment, health, behaviour and mental state when considering wildlife welfare. This may be particularly important for highly social species such as whales and dolphins.
These hunts may cause severe and long-lasting physical and mental harm to the surviving dolphins (both those captured and those left behind) as well as having a negative impact on their societies.
The focus of this recent work has been drive hunts, but some of the issues considered in this analysis are also relevant to the assessment of the welfare implications of hunting large whales. In these hunts, whales can be injured but escape being killed. Such whales are reported as ‘Struck and Lost’, but their ultimate fates are often unknown.
With your support, WDC will be working hard to make sure that the shocking conclusions of this study are taken seriously by governments and international decision-making organisations such as the International Whaling Commission (IWC- the body that regulates whaling). Our study is one more weapon in our armoury in the fight to end hunting and captivity – it’s yet another compelling piece of scientific evidence making it ever-harder to ignore what is so obvious: whales and dolphins should not be hunted and killed or taken into captivity for human amusement. It’s a long battle but each piece of work like this brings us closer to winning.