Animal Rights

Japan’s Horrific Massacre of Dolphins Deserves Condemnation

| by The Humane Society

The HSUS and our international affiliate, Humane Society International, engineered the European Parliament’s May 5 vote to ban the trade in seal fur, and it’s a serious blow against Canada’s annual seal hunt. But half a world away from Newfoundland’s blood-stained ice, another sickening slaughter of marine wildlife plays out along the coastline of Japan.

Each year at the picture postcard village of Taiji in southwestern Honshu, large pods of dolphins are driven from the ocean by a line of power boats. They are “herded” into a tiny cove and trapped in shallow waters. As the terrified animals thrash in fear and frenzy, hunters tear into them with blades. Some die slowly owing to injuries and loss of blood. Some drown. Others are literally butchered to death after being dragged ashore for processing.

Not all of the animals are killed, however. Hunts are attended by trainers from aquariums, marine-themed amusement parks, and swim-with-dolphin attractions who pay up to $200,000 for “show quality” females.

With the annual massacre of up to 2,300 coastal dolphins—as well as some 1,000 great whales killed in the southern and northern Pacific oceans and up to 18,000 Dall’s porpoises slaughtered in Japan's offshore waters—Japan is responsible for the world’s biggest massacre of cetaceans. Thousands of magnificent oceanic animals transformed into cellophane-wrapped packages of prime cuts on supermarket shelves, or ground up for pet food and fertilizer.

Campaigning by HSI and other animal welfare and conservation groups has made the world well aware that Japan’s continuing insistence on killing whales for “scientific research” is a thinly veiled charade for a commercial operation that is heavily subsidized by the government.

Not so well documented is their annual high seas slaughter of Dall’s porpoises.

Smaller than their dolphin cousins, the porpoises are easily caught with hand-thrown harpoons as they ride the bow-wave of the hunting boats. They are then gaffed, hauled aboard, and left to die of blood loss or shock. Japan’s hunt occurs in direct defiance of a request by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to cut their take in half because it is unsustainable.

The Taiji hunt has wiped out the regional population of striped dolphins and a similar fate may await other coastal dolphin species. But what really appalls animal welfare advocates, many conservationists, and even a growing number of scientists is its sheer cruelty.

Dolphins are gregarious, social, highly intelligent animals who often maintain lifelong bonds with fellow pod-mates. My colleague, HSI senior scientist and marine mammal biologist Naomi Rose, Ph.D., says dolphins suffer terrible trauma during the hunt. “These animals are thinking and self-aware,” she says. “The fear, pain, and suffering they feel when the killing begins are profound. They know exactly what is happening.”

For the few spared an agonizing death, the trauma lasts a lifetime—and a reprieve as a captive entertainer only postpones the inevitable. As co-author of the recently published fourth edition of “The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity,” Dr. Rose points out that dolphins—who can live 40 to 50 years in the wild—rarely live for long after capture in the drive fisheries.

At IWC meetings, The HSUS has long campaigned against Japan’s cetacean killing, and we have worked in Japan, mostly with supermarket chains, to end the demand for the meat. We have also worked with our allies in Congress urging the passage of Sen. Frank Lautenberg's resolution calling on Japan to end these drive fisheries of dolphins and other cetaceans. Just over a year ago at our annual Genesis Awards event, I was delighted to present the young actress Hayden Panettiere with the Wyler Award for confronting the dolphin killers at the Taiji hunt in 2007. She followed Sir Paul McCartney, our 2006 top Genesis honoree, who joined The HSUS on the ice to protest the Canadian seal hunt. Also last year at Genesis, The HSUS presented journalist Boyd Harnell with the 2008 Brigitte Bardot International Print award for his three-part series in The Japan Times on the continuing dolphin slaughter.

Next year, I won’t be surprised if coverage of the Taiji carnage isn’t up for a third Genesis. A documentary called "The Cove," clandestinely filmed underwater and from the headlands above the inlet where the dolphins are slaughtered, will open in July at movie theaters nationwide. "The Cove" won an audience choice award in January at the Sundance Film Festival, and it deserves the widest possible audience here and in Japan.

Canada’s seal hunt has rightly drawn the world’s ire. Japan’s unconscionable killing of whales, porpoises and dolphins deserves the same condemnation, and now.

This piece is reprinted from A Humane Nation, the blog of Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, where it originally appeared on May 26, 2009.