for National Geographic magazine
Every year on the first of September, in a small town called Taiji on the southeast coast of Japan's Honshu Island, a new fishing season begins: the dolphin season.
Twenty-six fishermen in 13 boats corral a few dozen dolphins into a small cove, where they kill the animals by stabbing them repeatedly with long harpoons and knives. The 50-square-foot (4.6-square-meter) inlet turns crimson, as if filled only with blood.
In the course of a six-month season, fishermen kill roughly 2,000 dolphins and sell the meat to local supermarkets for about U.S. $500 a dolphin. The fishermen supplement their income by taking about a hundred dolphins alive and selling them for tens of thousands of dollars each to aquariums in Japan, China, South Korea, Iran, and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
International media have not been kind to Taiji in the past, and the documentary The Cove, a Sundance Film Festival award winner released nationwide in the United States on August 7, is reopening old wounds. The film follows an international team of photographers, divers, and activists on their mission to document the dolphin hunt, facing opposition from Taiji town officials, police, and fishermen.
(Read an interview with The Cove's director from Adventure magazine.)
The activists are led by Ric O'Barry, who trained the bottlenose dolphins featured in the popular 1960s TV series Flipper. After the show ended in 1967, O'Barry became one of the world's most radical activists against keeping dolphins in captivity. For the past several years he's been trying to stop the hunt in Taiji, one of Japan's iconic whaling towns.
Others have also been outspoken: Blue Voice, a collaboration between filmmaker Hardy Jones and actor Ted Danson, has opposed the Taiji hunt for years. So has a Japanese environmental organization, Elsa Nature Conservancy. Heroes star Hayden Panettiere protested in the Taiji cove in 2007.
Many scientists are also opposed to the hunt. Since 2005, Hunter College animal behaviorist Diana Reiss—famous for discovering that dolphins can recognize themselves in mirrors—has been collecting signatures from hundreds of scientists around the world for a petition she plans to present to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton next month.
(Read a National Geographic magazine article on animal intelligence.)
"This [hunt] is an extreme case of animal cruelty," said Reiss, who receives funding from National Geographic's Committee for Research and Exploration. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)
Reiss, The Cove's filmmakers, and other activists working in Taiji all have a clear mission: Stop this dolphin hunt. But dolphin hunting is a complex issue, and focusing solely on ending it leaves some important questions unanswered: How widespread is dolphin hunting? When and why did it start, and why does it persist? And what effect, if any, is the hunt having on the health of dolphins globally?
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