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Taiji drops anchor on dolphin hunts despite increasing pressure

This post was originally created in late 2015, but due to problems with Word Press I was unable to publish it til mid-2016.

Earlier this month I made another trip to Taiji, the town in Wakayama Prefecture that has become notorious worldwide for its dolphin hunts, largely by virtue of the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove.” 

Last weekend the Japan Times published a story about that trip, which can be found online here. I am grateful to the JT for giving me ample space for this story, but as always there are details that had to be cut, partly to fit the JT on Sunday format, but also because I was unable to verify the validity of some of them.

I thought I would write down a couple of those omitted points here, but before I do I also wanted to thank the JT readers who took time to comment on the Taiji issue. Almost all of them were not commentary on the story itself, but were from readers who wanted to make their own feelings known about this very controversial issue. Some of the comments provoked some (heated) debate, which is always healthy. But it struck me that one or two of those comments may have benefitted from information that sadly was self-edited from my original draft for the above-mentioned reasons, thus prompting me to write this post.

One of the comments made on the JT online site was: “Why single out dolphins? And why Taiji when several other small communities such as the Faroe Islands practice the same thing?” Another said: “The Faroe Islands should get as much press as Taiji, but because of ulterior and suspect motives Taiji gets all the attention.”

Indeed, Taiji is not the only place that caries out dolphin drives. In fact, even within Japan there are other places that take or have taken a far more significant number of cetaceans in their drives, but do so far out to sea where they are less conspicuous and easy to scrutinize. The hunts in the Faroes date back far longer than those in Taiji, but if former dolphin trainer-turned activist Ric O’Barry is to believed that is all about to end.

According to O’Barry, the Faroes has agreed to end its dolphin culls in exchange for $30,000 per annum. He should know: the person who apparently brokered that deal is his son. But there’s a hitch: “All we need to do is find that money,” says O’Barry.

As mentioned in the JT story, some people in Taiji believe that activist groups (especially Sea Shepherd) are motivated by nothing else but money, and that by emphasizing what they see as the bloody/cruel/barbaric nature of the dolphin drives, they can play the sympathy card far more effectively and attract more funding. “Look at the people who support (the activists)” said one employee at a whale processing company who I interviewed. “There’s Hollywood stars and others with the financial clout to keep these protests going for a long time. The way to their wallets is blood, blood, blood.”

And it’s not just the activists. Simon Wearne, a former Sea Shepherd cinematographer-turned Taiji researcher, says he was surprised during his time filming the TV series “Whale Wars” to learn of the time and resources expended on issues such as whaling and dolphin hunting when the “real issue” – melting ice caps — was being pretty much ignored.

Unrelated to this is a comment that was made by a friend who questioned my lack of a voice from the Taiji government in the JT story. I did interview an official at the town offices (and in a way regret not reinstating this into the story), but the information that was forthcoming from that quarter was sadly lacking in any real substance.

Which was not unexpected, but nonetheless frustrating. I had written up a letter in Japanese explaining my purpose for researching the JT story, and had it vetted and stamped by the editors at the paper, but it made little difference with this official. Ignoring my first question, his first comment related to the use of the phrase iruka-ryo” (“dolphin fishing”) in the letter when there was an “officially recognized” term (“oikomi-ryo”) for the hunts that take place from September each year. I replied that perhaps rather than splitting hairs over semantics it would be more fruitful to look at the wider intention of the letter and therefore the purpose of my proposed research (to try and offer readers of the JT a more balanced perspective that took in the opinions of residents and officials in Taiji). He replied that it was semantics that had caused misunderstandings about Taiji in the first place.

And in one sense, he is not wrong. Semantics, and individual’s interpretations of letters, emails (and as some JT readers will know, comments posted about stories), can lead to misunderstandings, even if they are unintentional and/or not even the key issue at hand.

Yet, the town official and other people I spoke with there are never afraid of using those same semantics when they serve their own purposes. The best known of these is the statement often put forward that the dolphin hunters are doing nothing illegal and that the methods employed are in line with Japan’s fisheries laws. Better still is a sentiment (also voiced by prime minister Shinzo Abe) that Japan has a long tradition of dolphin hunting. This is simply not true.

There is also the view that the method employed to kill the dolphins is short and swift and well within the internationally accepted standards for immediacy to prevent suffering (a claim that was disputed by a group of international researchers in 2013). 

Activists, such as Yukari Sugisaka of Help Animals argue that if all of this is in fact true, then why do the fishermen insist on hiding the culls from view by stretching tens of meters of tarpaulin over so-called “killer Cove”? (One official told me that the purpose of the tarpaulin was to stop the animals from bashing themselves on the cove’s rocks when they writhe around.)

I suspect that the real purpose of this official speak is to deflect attention/avoid answering the difficult/unwanted questions in favour of towing the official line. I am not sure that it is a coincidence that the person who has gained a modicum  of cooperation in Taiji recently is a female film director who recently released what could only roughly be termed a “documentary” titled “Behind the Cove” — a riposte to the 2009 Oscar-winning “The Cove,” in which O’Barry played a lead role. Few who have seen it would deny that “The Cove” has some problematic points, but Keiko Yagi’s supposedly “more balanced” (her words) view in “Behind the Cove” stinks of a sympathetic bias.  

Even when I interviewed her (which I did via Skype from Taiji) those biases were clear. Despite admitting that she had never actually witnessed the culls herself, she was happy to echo the Taiji fishermen’s line that the culling method used in recent years does not cause any suffering to the dolphins and certainly did not induce the massacre-like bloody mess of years gone by. “There is no blood,” she told me, claiming that photographers photoshopped their images to change the colour of the water in “Killer Cove” and that Youtube videos claiming to show the slaughters at Taiji are in fact showing footage from the Faroes (in one case this is/was true).

I received some criticism regarding the JT article for not delving deeper into Yagi’s motivations, which one person I interviewed described as being a sad reflection of the “near nationalistic” feelings that the dolphin issue stirs in some Japanese. However, I felt the comments from Yagi that were included in the story were more than sufficient to establish her stance.

I should add that at the point when I interviewed Yagi I had not seen her film (only a short preview), though it was not for want of trying. Yogi had promised to send me a copy of the film to preview, but delayed delivery until just before story deadline she sent me a terse email rescinding her original promise:

yagi

 

“The other day it was my intention to send you a DVD, but after reviewing a number of related articles previously published by your company (sic) we* have concluded it would be inappropriate to send the DVD.”)

*I have been unable to establish exactly who “we” refers to.

I hope that this additional information will add a degree of clarity. I will update and complete this post shortly.

Japan Bans Aquariums from Buying Dolphins caught in Taiji Hunts

 

By Rob Gilhooly

In an unexpected move, the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA) has confirmed it will stop its members from buying dolphins caught by drive fisheries in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture.

A pod of what appear to be pilot whale dolphins swim in a sealed off area known as "killer cove" just after the first dolphin cull of the season has taken place in Taiji,  a small fishing village in central western Japan on 10 September  2009. Floating upside-down at top right of the picture, where the rocky cliff meets the water and the yellow inflatable floats, is the discarded body of a baby bottle nose dolphin..Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

A pod of what appear to be pilot whale dolphins swim in a sealed off area known as “killer cove” just after the first dolphin cull of the season has taken place in Taiji, a small fishing village in central western Japan on 10 September 2009. Floating upside-down at top right of the picture, where the rocky cliff meets the water and the yellow inflatable floats, is the discarded body of a baby bottle nose dolphin..Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

JAZA was facing possible expulsion from the the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) after being suspended by the global body for allowing its members to take dolphins caught in Taiji, whose drive fisheries are renowned for what activists believe are inhumane hunting methods.

In an announcement May 20, JAZA said that during an emergency meeting all but three of its 152 members had voted on the issue of whether to stay in WAZA. Of those, 99 voted in favor of the motion, while 43 voted against it.

The statement added that the JAZA board had made the decision to “prohibit members from acquiring dolphins caught in the wild by drive fishing in Taiji” in order to ensure its WAZA membership remained intact. It also announced the banning the export and sale of dolphins caught in the hunts.

However, JAZA chairman Kazutoshi Arai was adamant that this announcement was far from being a condemnation of the Taiji drive fisheries. “The drive fisheries in Taiji are certainly not the brutal affairs indicated by WAZA,” he said in press conference. Right wing daily Sankei Shimbun referred to the drives as a “Japanese tradition.”

The decision was made in light of a WAZA announcement on April 23 that it had suspended JAZA from its membership roster after the two organizations had been unable to reach an agreement on issues involving JAZA member zoos and aquariums taking dolphins from the annual drives in Taiji, a coastal town in Wakayama Prefecture.

Also known as “killer cove,” the town was brought to international attention in 2009 following the release of The Cove, a documentary about the dolphin culls that went on to win an Oscar for best documentary in 2010.

According to WAZA executive director Gerald Dick shortly before the JAZA announcement, the Gland, Switzerland-based world body had made numerous attempts to stop Japanese aquariums from taking cetaceans from the Taiji drives, which are undertaken for several months each fall and frequently garner international criticism.

WAZA officials made an appeal in Tokyo as recently as last summer and again in November during WAZA’s annual international conference in New Delhi.

WAZA asserted that taking from the drives went against the organization’s codes regarding animal welfare.

According to a WAZA official Hyatt Antognini Amin, WAZA bylaws state that in the case of a suspension “the affected member may provide further information on the issues raised to the President within 30 days.”

After that, “the council must decide to lift the suspension or to expel the member concerned prior to the next administrative session,” she said. “This is when the final decision will be made to either expel them, in which case they will be removed from our website.”

Dick denied that WAZA had given Japan an ultimatum whereby it would have to cease purchasing dolphins caught in Taiji by May 21 or face expulsion. “There is a grace period which is between 30 days (after the suspension) and the next (WAZA) council meeting, which is in October,” he said.

Following the suspension in April, JAZA’s Kensho Nagai said the organization had explained its “circumstances” in some detail, but that WAZA had not been able to fully comprehend them. The method employed in Japan to catch dolphins is recognized by the Japanese government, he said. What’s more, the method used to catch dolphins that are used in Japan’s aquariums and zoos is very different than the one used to catch dolphins that are used for food, he added. “Despite this, the two methods are seen as being one and the same thing.”

Dolphins fished for aquariums “are handled with extreme care” and “are exposed to zero stress” by the Taiji fishermen, Nagai said.

Asked if WAZA had perhaps misunderstood JAZA’s explanation, Dick said: “We can only make a decision based on the info that’s given,” he said.

This is an issue that has garnered attention around the world and we have been looking into the Taiji drive fisheries for 10 years, and concluded it was a violation of our codes regarding the welfare of animals.”

Dick was also critical of certain activist organizations – including one in Australia that is currently filing a lawsuit against Taiji – for spreading “false and misleading” information about the drives to gain attention in the media.

Our focus is rather than going that route to focus on cooperation and building cooperation between all interested parties, he said. “It is much more constructive to do this because in the end we all have the same goal.”

Groups Take Action Against Taiji Discrimination

Sydney-based organisation Australia for Dolphins has filed a first-ever lawsuit against Taiji, the fishing town in Wakayama Prefecture know for its dolphin hunts.

Visitors enjoy a dolphin show at a dolphinarium inside the grounds of the whaling museum in Taiji, Japan on 10 September  2009. Photographer: Robert Gilhooly.

Visitors enjoy a dolphin show at the dolphinarium inside the  whaling museum grounds in Taiji, Japan on 10 September 2009. Photographer: Rob Gilhooly.

Taiji came under the spotlight globally following the release of the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove in 2009. The lawsuit, which is being jointly filed by AFD and Save Japan Dolphins, run by a key figure in The Cove, Ric O’Barry, relates to the “appalling conditions” for dolphins being kept at the Taiji Whale Museum, according to organisers.
What’s more, the museum is denying entrance to law-abiding people based on their appearance, they add. “People of foreign appearance are deemed to be ‘anti-whalers’ and not allowed to enter,” said AFD’s Sarah Lucas. The lawsuit asserts that this is in violation of Article 14 of the Japanese Constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race and Article 19 which protects freedom of thought, she added.

A pod of what appear to be pilot whale dolphins swim in a sealed off area known as "killer cove" just after the first dolphin cull of the season has taken place in Taiji,  a small fishing village in central western Japan on 10 September  2009. Floating upside-down at top right of the picture, where the rocky cliff meets the water and the yellow inflatable floats, is the discarded body of a baby bottle nose dolphin..Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

A pod of dolphins swim in a sealed off area known as “killer cove” just after the first dolphin cull of the season  in Taiji, Japan on 10 September 2009. Photographer: Rob Gilhooly

Lawyers representing the groups believe they have a strong case, she said. “If we win, it will bring public scrutiny to the museum, and hopefully help improve the conditions of the dolphins.”

One of the dolphins causing particular concern for the organisations is an albino calf that O’Barry has named Angel. “As Angel has become a symbol for all the dolphins caught in Taiji, hopefully shining a spotlight on her will bring another wave of interest in the issue,” Lucas said.

O’Barry says he is determined to one day return Angel to a more natural habitat.

“They don’t want people like me to go into the Taiji Whale Museum to monitor Angel,” O’Barry said during an interview Thursday in Tokyo following a trip to Taiji, made a protest to the aquarium but was denied entry — an lambasts on discriminatory grounds.

According to news reports, the facility frequently denies access to foreign activists, such as O’Barry and Sea Shepherd.

O’Barry is among many protestors, dolphin protection groups and researchers worldwide that have long been calling for an end to the culling method employed by fishermen at Taiji, calling it inhumane and against international codes governing the capture of the cetaceans. The method employed involves impaling the dolphins behind the blowhole to sever the spinal cord. While this  seems barbaric, Japanese researchers claim it is more humane than the more random hurling of harpoons from boats employed previously in Taiji’s drive hunts.

A study by scientists in Britain and the U.S. last year refuted those claims, saying that analysis had indicated the method does not “fulfill the internationally recognized requirement for immediacy.” “It would not be tolerated or permitted in any regulated slaughterhouse process in the developed world,” said University of Bristol Veterinary School professor Andrew Butterworth, lead author of the paper. The culls have continued regardless, causing outrage among concerned groups. “From a scientific, humane and ethical perspective, the treatment of dolphins in the (Taiji) drive hunts sharply contradict current animal welfare standards employed in most modern and technologically advanced societies,” said Diana Reiss of Hunter College at the City University of New York.

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