Andreas Späth

They’re still killing dolphins in Japan

2011-09-07 08:05

Andreas Späth

Last Thursday, Japan opened its annual dolphin hunting season. Every year the Japanese government issues permits for the capture and killing of over 20 000 dolphins and porpoises. Until quite recently the hunt went on in near secrecy without the knowledge of much the world, including the vast majority of Japanese citizens.

Until Louie Psihoyos’s 2010 Oscar-winning documentary The Cove blew the lid off it, that is. Since then a tiny bay near the coastal village of Taiji in Wakayama Prefecture has become synonymous with the whole bloody business.

The fact that the entire world now knows about what goes on there has made little difference, however. Fleets of fishing boats still herd schools of dolphins and other small cetaceans into the cove where they are trapped behind the rocky coastline and a series of nets.

Now, let’s not gloss over the subtle cultural and racial bigotry that forms a distinct subtext for much of the outrage over the Japanese dolphin hunt in the “West”: the mostly unspoken implication that only uncivilised, devious and greedy slit-eyed yellow people could perpetrate such inhumane cruelty on innocent animals. The fact that we Westerners preside over the industrialised butchery of millions of arguable somewhat less cute, but similarly intelligent pigs is only part of the hypocrisy here.

What’s more to the point is that the hunt is motivated to a considerable degree by an industry invented and popularised in the west. It allows wholesome families to be awed by troops of dolphins trained to jump through flaming hoops and panders to some people’s need to soothe their midlife crisis by swimming with dolphins.

You see, once the schools of dolphins are trapped in the infamous cove at Taiji, the best looking individuals are captured and sold to marine parks and aquariums around the globe. While many show dolphins are actually born in captivity these days, a live bottlenose dolphin can still fetch $150 000 or more. Only then does the actual slaughter begin, as the remaining animals – think of them as “by-catch” worth around $600 each – are harpooned in a process that turns the bay’s water crimson.

Having said all that, the official reasons offered to explain and excuse the hunt are little short of laughable. One argument has it that we’re witnessing a form of pest control necessary to stop ravenous dolphins from eating local fishermen out of a livelihood. To blame marine mammals that have evolved in perfectly stable balance with their natural prey for millions of years for the precipitous decline in global fish stocks demonstrably brought about by decades of systematic over-harvesting by a ravenous multinational factory fishing fleets simply beggars belief.

The Japanese government defends the hunt as a centuries-old cultural and traditional practice, but in reality very few Japanese people have ever eaten dolphin meat. At least not intentionally. Meat from the hunt is frequently labelled and sold as more expensive whale meat, even though it is typically laced with dangerously high levels of toxic mercury. Only since the International Whaling Commission outlawed the commercial killing of baleen whales in 1986 did the Japanese turn to hunting more of the smaller cetaceans less explicitly covered by the ban.

And so the unnecessary slaughter continues unabated, international outcry or no. In 2009 a temporary media frenzy surrounding The Cove led to a delay in the annual hunt, but it certainly didn’t stop it, which should be a wake-up call to all of us armchair and keyboard activists around the world. Watching a documentary, liking a Facebook protest page, putting your electronic signature to an online petition, or writing an angry opinion piece will not, in most instances, change the world. At least not in the short run.

That’s not to say that all of these efforts are without merit. If applied persistently, they will raise awareness and outrage among more and more people until it becomes impossible for the perpetrators to continue with business as usual. In the case of the dolphins, let’s hope that happens sooner rather than too late.

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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