Despite the pandemic, one of the most infamous and vile dolphin hunts has been underway since the beginning of September and it will continue until April. For these six months, around 25 men from the town of Taiji in Japan will take to the water every day that weather permits, to hunt dolphins. Those they catch will either be slaughtered for their meat or sold to the captivity industry. With government approval to kill approximately 1,750 individuals covering nine different species, the waters soon turn red from the blood that is spilled.
Without doubt, the life of each individual dolphin matters but for me personally, as someone who studies the remarkable Risso’s dolphin, my heartbreak is that little harder to bear when I hear about hunts which have resulted in either the capture or the death of individuals of this enigmatic species.
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Risso’s dolphins are highly social, form long-term bonds with each other and can live for up to 50 years. I cannot even begin to imagine the pain and suffering that these dolphins have to endure. They either bear witness to close friends and/or family members being plucked out of the pod, destined for a life in a concrete tank, doing tricks for food, or they watch on and listen to the cries of their pod mates, unable to do anything to help, awaiting their own fate and the slice of the butcher’s knife.
To be subjected to such trauma is unimaginable. There is no compassion, no consideration for their welfare or for the mental anguish that they are enduring.
To help us understand the impact of the removal of so many individuals from a population, let’s look at the bigger picture.
For the past few years the kill-quota for Risso’s dolphins given to the dolphin hunters of Taiji is for 251 individuals. Allow me to put that in context. Since 2010, as part of a WDC project, I’ve been studying a population of Risso’s who live off the coast of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. From our annual boat surveys we undertake photo-identification research (under licence from the Scottish government) that has allowed us to create a catalogue of known individuals. We can identify individual dolphins from their dorsal fins and the scratches and markings they have on their bodies and the photo-ID cataloguing means we can build a picture of the lives of these individuals over time. Some dolphins are seen year after year, sometimes with the same friends, sometimes with newly acquired acquaintances and sometimes with newborn calves.
The waters around the Isle of Lewis are critical to their wellbeing, providing a plentiful supply of food and shelter to raise their young and these are strong reasons why they choose to live where they do. To date our catalogue consists of approximately 150 individual Risso’s dolphins, 100 fewer than the kill-quota for a single year in the Taiji hunt. When I made that comparison for the first time my heart dropped.
Although for the past few years, the hunters have never fulfilled their quota for Risso’s dolphins, on average they’ve killed 138 individual Risso’s dolphins a year, almost as many as are in our catalogue which remember, has been created over the last 11 years. Imagine if you will that we swapped our research site from the Isle of Lewis to Taiji? Our entire study population could theoretically be wiped out in one year. This brings home the magnitude of these hunts and the impact that the killing might be having on geographically distinct populations.
So far, 2020 has been a pretty brutal year for many people around the world, and it hasn’t been kind to the Risso’s dolphins in and around Taiji either. The main victims of the hunts this year have been Risso’s with 47 already slaughtered and butchered for their meat and one individual taken into a life in captivity – which undeniably may be a fate worse than death – and the season is only a third of the way through.
The next few months could, and likely will, see numerous more Risso’s dolphins in the waters around Taiji being subjected to this devastatingly cruel fate and I will be watching on with tears in my eyes and an aching in my heart. The only solace I am likely to find is in spending as much time as possible learning more about the Isle of Lewis Risso’s, analysing the thousands of images I took this past summer. The picture we build of their lives through this research and photo-ID cataloguing helps us figure out what they need to keep them safe and ensure they thrive. The more we understand, the more effectively we can work to secure their protection and conservation. I will be eternally grateful that for these dolphins at least, hunting is not a threat they need to face.
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