Japan's Dolphin Hunts

Small whales, dolphins and porpoises are also victims of destructive hunting. The animals are hunted for their meat, to reduce the perceived competition for fish and to supply the aquarium industry. Although small cetaceans are not specifically covered by the Convention for the International Regulation of Whaling, its Scientific Committee does conduct work on the threats they face including those from direct hunting.

It is important to note that small cetaceans are also hunted in the Faroe Islands, the Solomon Islands, and elsewhere.  However, the largest slaughter of small cetaceans in the world is conducted in Japan.

Approximately 20,000 dolphins and small whales are chased and killed every year. Well over a thousand of these animals are killed very close to shore in the notorious "drive fisheries." These drive hunts are unregulated and are often appallingly cruel. The meat that is sold is not labeled as contaminated and has been found to contain dangerous levels of mercury and other toxins such as PCB and dioxin, presenting a public health hazard. Since little is known about the population status of the animals being hunted, serial species depletions may be taking place without either acknowledgement from or knowledge of the Japanese scientific community.

The fishermen, or perhaps more accurately, the hunters, try to justify the drive hunts by saying they are continuing a cultural tradition.  Part of the tradition is tied to the historical belief that dolphins and whales are fish and could be utilized as such.  Perhaps this is why marine mammals are regulated by the Ministry of Fisheries and not regulated by the Ministry of Environment that oversees all terrestrial animals.  Although we cannot deny a people’s desire to preserve their history, we cannot condone a tradition that is not only cruel but is almost single-handedly perpetuating the live dolphin trade.     

The Drive Fishery Process

Fishermen in Taiji, Futo and a few other coastal towns in Japan have hunted dolphins and other small whales for food for centuries.  They were once small fishing villages reliant on the bounty from their coasts.

The drive hunts typically take place from October through March.  Once a school of dolphins or small whales has been spotted at sea, the fishermen 'drive' them towards the shore using noise to frighten them.  Long poles with flanged ends are placed in the water and tapped to generate the noise.  The resultant sounds confuse the animals, enabling the fishermen to steer them towards the shore.  Once enclosed in a killing bay a net is thrown across the mouth and the dolphins are trapped.  The net is then drawn tighter and tighter towards the shore until the animals are thrashing around in a confused panic.  All the time the fishermen in their small boats are driving them closer and closer to the shore and confining them further.  Many animals drown and some die from stress.

In an effort to thwart negative publicity and conceal the barbarity of the drive hunts, the Japanese authorities who sanction the hunts have instructed the drive fishermen to hide the killing process from outside eyes. This is done by sectioning off the killing zone with tarpaulin sheeting while the slaughter occurs and by closing off the roads to the villages to outsiders during the hunts.

Once captured, many of the animals are slaughtered by the fishermen with knives and spears.  They cry out in agony and struggle to escape.  Bleeding profusely and thrashing about, they take many agonizing minutes to die.  They are then chained by the tail and hauled ashore to be gutted and processed into meat sold in local markets and restaurants.

The Involvement of Aquariums

With the growing popularity of captive dolphins, dolphin shows and swim-with-the-dolphin programs, the demand for dolphins has increased.  Many nations have outlawed the capture of dolphins from the wild for commercial gain.  Japan has not and the drive fisheries provide a perfect source for unscrupulous buyers and brokers of dolphins.

Nowadays the captive industry is underpinning the drive fisheries with some hunts taking place only when an order for dolphins has been made by an aquarium.  Once the dolphins have been driven ashore, dolphin handlers and trainers jump into the water to hand-pick some of the dolphins for a life in captivity.  They select "show-quality" dolphins - usually unblemished females – and leave the rest to their fate.  A dead dolphin is worth a few hundred dollars but a live one can sell for a hundred times that making the dolphin hunts very lucrative.

The United States, Europe and many other countries have outlawed the importation of dolphins from Japan due to these exceptionally cruel capture methods.  The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), an organization representing over 1,200 zoos and aquariums around the world, and the U.S. Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) have both condemned the Japanese drive fishery hunts and related captures for aquaria.  WAZA explicitly prohibits member organizations from purchasing dolphins from drive hunts.

Japan Dolphin Day

Each year in the Fall around the time of the commencement of the drive hunt season people from all walks of life come together to oppose the drive hunts.  AWI has organized the Washington, D.C. rally as part of this global effort to highlight the practice on an international level.  For reports on past Japan Dolphin Day protests, click here.  We have also collaborated with the marine mammal scientific community which has collectively demonstrated its opposition to the hunts in a scientist statement condemning the hunts.

What You Can Do to Help:

You can make a difference by writing to the following Japanese officials:

The Honorable Naoto Kan
Prime Minister of Japan
Fax: +81-3-3581-3883
E-mail: http://www.kantei.go.jp/foreign/forms/comment.html

Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki
Embassy of Japan in Washinton D.C.
2520 Massachusetts Ave., N.W.
Washington D.C. 20008-2869
Fax: 202-328-2187
E-mail: jicc@embjapan.org

Please sign the petition to warn Japanese citizens of the mercury danger.

Last Updated: December 29, 2010