Small Cetacean Hunts in Japan

In Japan, up to 20,000 dolphins, porpoises and small whales are hunted every year in hand harpoon hunts, drive hunts, and small-type whaling operations using bow-mounted harpoons. Most are killed in the hand hunts, of which the Dall’s porpoise hunt is the most documented. Mothers with calves are targeted as they are easier to catch. Once the mother is dispatched, the calves are left to die. The mothers are hunted using spears thrown into the flesh. Once maimed they have floats attached to them and are left to bleed to death. Sometimes they are killed via electrocution.

Approximately 1,000 animals are targeted every year in drive hunts, the most infamous of which takes place in Taiji, Wakayama prefecture from September to March. Pods of dolphins are driven to shore with noise. Once enclosed in a bay, a net is thrown across its mouth, trapping the dolphins. The net is then drawn tighter and tighter until the animals are thrashing around in a confused panic. Meanwhile, fishermen in small boats drive them closer and closer to the shore. Many animals drown and some die from the stress of the ordeal.

Once captured, some animals - usually unblemished females - are selected for sale to aquaria and the rest are slaughtered. A dead dolphin is worth a few hundred dollars but a live one can sell for over a hundred times that, making the dolphin hunts very lucrative. In recent times, after live ones have been chosen, some of the animals initially trapped have been freed - to an unknown fate given the stress and potential for injury and permanent separation from family. Those earmarked for killing are dispatched with knives and spears. In an effort to thwart negative publicity and to conceal the barbarity of the drive hunts, the killing process is hidden from public view by tarpaulin sheeting and roads to the villages are closed off.

The meat that is sold has been found to contain dangerous levels of mercury and other toxins such as PCBs, presenting a public health hazard. Little is known about the population status of the animals being hunted, and the drive hunts may be causing serial depletions of population and/or species.

Baird’s beaked whales are also hunted for their meat via small-type whaling operations. Once spotted from a whaling vessel, a harpoon (sometimes a non-exploding "cold" harpoon, banned by the IWC in 1980) is fired toward the animal. Once struck, a line from the harpoon to the boat ensures the animal cannot escape and it is hauled closer to the boat, after which a secondary method is used to kill the animal if still alive at that point.