Captured Dolphin With Four Fins Spotlights Controversial Hunt

John Roach
for National Geographic News
November 14, 2006
The capture of an unusual dolphin with an extra set of fins is shedding
light on a controversial hunting technique in Japan.

The bottlenose dolphin was captured alive on October 28 during Japan's annual dolphin "drive hunt."

During the hunt, fishers use boats and loud noises to herd hundreds of dolphins into shallow bays. There, many are corralled into nets and killed. Others are kept live and sold to aquariums, according to conservationists.

"I think it's actually wonderful that this animal has come to light now," Diana Reiss, a senior research scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City, said in an interview for this week's National Geographic News podcast.

"Not only is it interesting in terms of our science, but I think it will shed light on this really arcane and very inhumane practice that we really must bring to an end."

Scientists said the four-limbed dolphin may be an evolutionary throwback to a time when marine mammal ancestors walked on land.

(Related Story: "Dolphin With Four Fins May Prove Terrestrial Origins" [November 8, 2006].)

But the hunt itself, according to conservationists and animal rights activists, is cruel to dolphins, which are considered intelligent and socially complex marine mammals.

Sanctioned Hunt

Reiss is a leading voice in the campaign to halt the drive hunt.

"This practice has been going on for hundreds of years, but it has gotten even worse recently," she said.

Conservationists estimate more than 20,000 dolphins and porpoises will be killed during the hunt, which began in September and runs until April.

"This is a commercial hunt that is actually sanctioned by the government. … [T]here are quotas on how many animals the fishermen can take," Reiss added.

Hideki Moronuki, a spokesman for Japan's Fisheries Agency in Tokyo, confirmed the local government issues a permit for the annual dolphin hunt.

"Japan traditionally utilized dolphins as one of the marine resources like fish and squid, and in some areas still they have a tradition to eat dolphin meat," he said.

The hunts primarily take place in the remote southern villages of Taiji and Futo, where dolphin meat is considered a delicacy.

Moronuki adds that after the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling in 1986, dolphin meat began to supplement whale meat.

But outside the few villages where the hunts take place, conservationists say dolphin meat is not eaten.

Japanese whalers continue to hunt whales in the name of scientific research. Whale meat from the hunts is then legally sold in markets. Conservationists say dolphin meat, which contains high levels of mercury, is marketed as whale meat in these markets.

The dolphins are also used as pet food and fertilizer, according to conservationists.

The best of the dolphins captured in the annual drive hunts are kept alive and sold to Japanese and Chinese aquariums for upwards of U.S. $50,000 each, Reiss says.

"They take the crème de la crème and hold them," she said. "In fact, they are apparently holding 30 dolphins right now alive for shipping to an aquarium in Beijing."

Moronuki said dolphins are "very popular in aquariums" and supplying the animals to aquariums in Japan and China is no different than supplying them to aquariums in the U.S.

Disturbing Tradition

Reiss describes the annual hunt as an "extremely disturbing" tradition.

Fishers surround a pod of dolphins at sea in their boats, lower metal poles into the water, and bang the poles with hammers.

The noise interferes with the dolphins' sonar, causing the marine mammals to panic. The fishers herd the frightened animals into shallow bays, where the killing takes place, often by slitting the animals' throats, turning the water red with blood.

Following several widely published images and videos of the hunt, Reiss says, the fishers now conduct the slaughter under white tents to keep it out of public view.

"But we know what's going on inside," she said. "There's actually gruesome footage showing the actual slaughter from undercover folks."

The tradition appalls Reiss in part because scientific research suggests dolphins are highly intelligent animals that share with humans emotions such as empathy.

For example, research has shown that dolphins, great apes, and most recently elephants are able to recognize themselves in a mirror, a possible sign of self-awareness.

(Related Story: "Elephants Recognize Selves in Mirror, Study Says" [October 30, 2006].)

"This is not touchy-feely stuff. This is what we are seeing in terms of our science," Reiss said.

"So I'm hoping we will become more empathic to these animals and actually do something to help them as well."

Peter Standring contributed to this story.

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