National Geographic News
Bottlenose dolphins lie piled in a boat, and the water runs red with their blood during a hunt near Taiji, Japan

Dolphins are piled in a boat surrounded by water running red with blood near Taiji, Japan, in 2003. The town's hunt is featured in the Oscar-winning Cove movie.

Photograph courtesy Brooke McDonald, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society via AP

Patrick Walters

for National Geographic magazine

Updated March 8, 2010 (first published August 10)

With The Cove movie winning the 2010 Oscar for best documentary Sunday night, residents of the fishing village made famous in the movie are voicing their disappointment, calling the film inaccurate and intolerant of other cultures.

The Cove's makers and distributors counter that the movie won the Oscar because it was well made and worth seeing, and that the Oscar nod highlights people's concerns about the controversial practice at the heart of the movie—dolphin hunting.

Every year on the first of September, at a cove 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 the 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.

(Related: "Captured Dolphin With Four Fins Spotlights Controversial Hunt.")

Cove Movie Reopened Wounds

International media have not been kind to Taiji in the past, and the Oscar-winning movie The Cove, which was released nationwide in the United States in August, has reopened old wounds. The movie 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.

(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?

The Cove Movie Captures an Age-Old Local Tradition

People in Japan have hunted dolphins and their larger cetacean relatives, whales, for hundreds if not thousands of years. Glacial melting made Japan an island chain 10,000 years ago, and as its population grew, the country became highly dependent on the sea.

"Pretty much any edible sea creature has been exploited for food," said Harvard University anthropologist and Japanese fishing-culture expert Theodore Bestor. Whales and dolphins became ingrained in Japanese food, culture, and religion. The animals were the subjects of celebrations, rituals, and art. Ancient tombs and memorials for whales and dolphins can be found across the country.

Unlike whaling—which became a large-scale commercial industry in the 20th century, before a 1986 international moratorium—dolphin hunting has always been primarily a local activity, said University of Oslo anthropologist Arne Kalland. Traditionally dolphin hunts have been isolated to a handful of small fishing towns, where dolphin meat is well liked.

Ironically, a Japanese town where dolphin wasn't popular became the first to draw international attention to drive hunting, the practice of corralling the dolphins into a cove. In the late 1970s fishermen in Iki, a small town on an island west of Taiji, had come to believe that dolphins were depleting stocks of a popular fish called yellowtail, though there's no data to suggest dolphins have ever significantly reduced yellowtail stocks. In April 1979 National Geographic magazine published a picture of Iki's bloody cove, showing bottlenose dolphins strewn on the beach.

The following year Hardy Jones visited Iki and filmed the slaughter. He sent his tape to CBS, and after the network ran the footage, more than 200 reporters from all over the world showed up to cover the story. Iki hasn't had a dolphin hunt since.

By the mid-1980s, Jones said, most other towns with drive hunts also gave up the practice. Some stopped because they ran out of dolphins, which were overfished, scared off, or both—but most were driven to quit by all the negative attention. The drive hunts weren't worth the trouble.

Still, Taiji refused to stop: In 1980, fishermen killed 11,017 dolphins in drive hunts.

Dolphin Hunts Like Those in The Cove Persist Outside Japan

Over the past 25 years, Taiji (population 3,600) has become a flashpoint for animal-rights activists. But it's not the only place where fishermen kill dolphins. It's not even the only place with a blood-drenched cove.

Every year, fishermen in the Faroe Islands, an autonomous province of Denmark, also corral and kill hundreds of dolphins in small coves. Just as in Taiji, the water runs red.

So why hasn't the Faroese hunt attracted the same kind of negative international attention? For starters, it's only half the size of Taiji's and sometimes smaller. In addition, the fishermen kill pilot whales, which are technically dolphins but aren't as recognizable as their bottlenose cousins. The hunt is also less commercial. The meat is divided evenly among local families instead of being sold to supermarkets, and no animals are sold to aquariums.

What's more, the Faroe Islands respect a worldwide commercial whaling ban, though Denmark wants it lifted. So does Japan, and Tokyo's outspoken opposition to the ban has made Japan a lightning rod for anti-whaling activists—and, by extension, dolphin activists.

Even within Japan, the Taiji hunt is small compared to one that happens in the north, where harpooners kill more than 10,000 Dall's porpoises every year for food—five times the recent annual take in Taiji. But because the hunt happens out at sea, it's hard to photograph and has received far less attention than Taiji's bloody cove.

Dolphin hunts also take place at a small subsistence level in the Caribbean and the Arctic. Fishermen kill dolphins frequently in Peru—where it's illegal—but data on how many are killed is hard to come by.

Solomon Islands Hunt "Completely Unsustainable"

In the Solomon Islands, dolphins are regularly killed for their meat and their teeth, which are used decoratively. As in Taiji, fishermen sell a small number of dolphins to aquariums.

The Solomon Islands hunt is one of the smallest in the world—less than a hundred are killed every year, and about a dozen are sold into captivity—but it presents an urgent problem for conservationists since the local dolphin population may number only in the hundreds.

"It's completely unsustainable," said Natural Resources Defense Council staff attorney Taryn Kiekow. Former Flipper trainer Ric O'Barry and the Earth Island Institute have lobbied officials in the Solomon Islands to end the hunt.

Globally, most dolphin populations are safe. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, there are likely more than six million dolphins worldwide. A few species are at risk of extinction, but most number in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

"Anybody who tells you these animals are going to go extinct because of these hunts, there's no data to support that," said NRDC marine mammal scientist Liz Alter. Still, she cautions that it's possible that the Dall's porpoise hunt in Japan may harm subpopulations of that animal, which numbers more than a million worldwide.

One Critic: "We Never Say 'Don't Eat a Cheeseburger'"

Shigeki Takaya, assistant director of the Far Seas Fisheries Division of Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries in Tokyo, which oversees dolphin hunting, said he hasn't seen The Cove movie yet—just the trailer. But Takaya knows what the filmmakers want, and he says they should give up.

"What difference is there between a cow, a pig, and a dolphin?" he said. "There's no difference. There is a market for dolphin in Japan. It's not a major market, but it's a market. Dolphin is a resource, and people have to respect each other's cultures. In other countries they eat cow. But we never say to Americans, 'Don't eat a cheeseburger.' We never, ever say that."

Hunter College's Reiss counters that the Taiji hunt must stop simply because it's inhumane. Dolphins are extremely intelligent creatures that experience pain and suffering, she emphasizes. She has listened to underwater recordings from the Taiji drive hunt and says the dolphins issue sophisticated distress calls.

"Science has got to transcend cultural borders," she said.

The Switzerland-based World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) has forbidden its members from taking dolphins from the Taiji hunt. The Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums is a WAZA member, but most Japanese aquariums don't belong to the national association.

WAZA director Gerald Dick has visited several Japanese aquarium directors and said it's hard to convince them to stop buying dolphins from Taiji when doing so costs so much less than breeding them in captivity.

"They don't regard [the hunt] as particularly cruel," he said. "They've been doing it for years."

The makers of The Cove movie argue that if Japanese aquarium-goers knew where the aquariums were getting their dolphins, people might stop visiting. The Taiji drive hunt is not widely publicized in Japan, the filmmakers say, but they are seeking a Japanese distributor for the documentary.

Could Mercury Fears End The Cove Hunts?

Like most forms of fishing, dolphin hunting isn't regulated by any international organization.

The International Whaling Commission has for years debated whether it should limit the hunting of small cetaceans like dolphins, but it's been deadlocked. The commission was created in 1946 to control the market for whale oil and later took on the duty of protecting whales from being hunted to extinction. But global dolphin populations are healthy.

In the end, it might be Japanese consumers who stop the Taiji hunt. Activists, scientists, and the Japanese press have documented high levels of mercury contamination in Japan's dolphins. The Cove features Oregon State University marine biologist Scott Baker, a past National Geographic Society grantee who tested Japanese striped dolphin meat and reported in 2005 it had nearly a hundred times the amount of mercury permitted by Japanese regulations.

But mercury poisoning doesn't show its effects immediately, and although the Japanese government has warned pregnant women to limit their consumption of dolphin meat, it would probably take awhile for people to give up completely a food tied so closely to their history and culture.

So far, Japan—home to the world's largest dolphin hunt—has done nothing to suggest it will stop this age-old practice.

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