Taiji dolphin drive hunt is over - but the cetacean slaughter continues

Bottlenose dolphins trapped by nets in the killing cove at Taiji, Japan. Photo: Dolphin Project.
Bottlenose dolphins trapped by nets in the killing cove at Taiji, Japan. Photo: Dolphin Project.
The dolphin drive hunts in Taiji, Japan have officially ended for the season, writes Ric O'Barry, however the offshore pilot whale hunt continues until the end of May. After a particularly brutal year, which culminated in my arrest and deportation from Japan, we at Dolphin Project will continue our crucial work to end the annual barbarity of cetacean killings and captures.
The Taiji fishermen and Japanese government claim the killings are a cultural tradition. There is nothing cultural about the slaughters or captures. The cruelty is extreme, and the methods used are violent, gruesome and prolonged.

Following its release in 2009, the documentary film The Cove highlighted the senseless cruelty of the Japanese dolphin drive hunts.

While its effect saw a slight reduction in the number of cetaceans killed in Taiji, the barbaric slaughters still continue.

On 29th February, authorities in Taiji declared the 2015/2016 hunting season - which usually runs from September until March - officially over.

But although the drives - in which dolphins are rounded up by 'banger boats' into a small cove - have ended for the season, the killings continue out at sea as fishermen in Taiji turn to the offshore whaling of small cetaceans.

The fishermen's drive permits are valid until the end of March, however the offshore whaling of pilot whales is officially permitted until the end of May. This results in opportunistic hunting with little oversight, and ends only at the fishermen's discretion - usually with the arrival of bonita and other migratory fish.

A total of 41 drives took place during the main hunting period, with five species of dolphins affected. More than 650 animals were killed, and 111 were taken into captivity for a life of slavery in so-called amusement parks.

Many of the dolphins taken captive will remain in Japan, while others will be shipped to marine parks around the world. It is estimated that marine parks, zoos and dolphinariums placed approximately 150 orders for wild-caught dolphins during the 2015/2016 season. The majority of orders originated from China - the largest international buyer of wild dolphins.

Meanwhile, the slaughtered animals are sold for food. Their meat is tainted with highly toxic levels of mercury, and therefore the market for such meat is dwindling. This results in the majority of dolphin flesh being sold as either pet food or fertiliser.

Captive dolphins sell for approximately $250,000, whereas dolphins sold for meat raise $200-$400. It is therefore easy to see that the captivity industry drives the slaughters, a practice considered 'traditional' by the Taiji fishermen.

Brutality, barbarity and bloodshed

The first drive of the season took place on 11 September 2015, when a pod of 12 Risso's dolphins was harassed, chased and driven to exhaustion into the netted killing cove after a three-hour pursuit. Desperate to escape, the pod tried to flee under the nets towards the beach.

Joined by my team of Dolphin Project volunteer cove monitors, we watched as a female dolphin beached herself a few feet away from where we were standing. All I could do was watch helplessly as the dolphin rolled over and died, while the rest of her pod was slaughtered.

Eight days later, the fishermen rounded up a pod of approximately 75-80 bottlenose dolphins in the cove. The dolphins were held overnight without shelter or food - no doubt leading to dehydration, exhaustion and extreme anxiety. The next day the fishermen selected 50 dolphins for a life of captivity, while the remaining dolphins were released back into the ocean.

The Taiji fishermen and Japanese government claim the killings are a cultural tradition. There is nothing cultural about the slaughters or captures. The cruelty is extreme, and the methods used are violent, gruesome and prolonged.

One of the most horrific and heart-wrenching drives of the season took place in November, and spanned the four-day slaughter of approximately 50 pilot whales - including a large number of babies and juveniles.

As the pod swam tightly together, cove monitors witnessed tiny heads poking out of the water beside larger adults. The males swam around the periphery of the pod while the female matriarchs checked on the young. All were spy hopping out of the water - their panic and confusion palpable.

After the initial capture, the pod was netted alone overnight in the cove, with no access to food, before divers arrived the following morning to separate half of the group. Several pilot whales were pushed under sheets of tarpaulin where they met a violent end - metal rods pushed through their spines, leading to a slow and excruciating death.

The remainder of the pod was held for another night in the cove. The traumatised dolphins, swimming slower with laboured breathing, were subjected to a further two days of brutal slaughter. Young dolphins were left to watch as skiffs went by carrying the dead.

On day four, once the remaining adult pod members had been killed, the juveniles were carried back out to sea one-by-one in metal slings. Some became entangled in the slings and drowned, and for others the chance of survival was minimal. Babies were left unable to nurse, and there were no adults remaining to protect and teach the young.

The Taiji fishermen and Japanese government claim the killings are a cultural tradition. There is nothing cultural or traditional about the slaughters or captures. The cruelty is extreme, and the methods used are violent, gruesome and prolonged.

Banished without reason

This drive season was particularly brutal for the dolphins, and also for myself on a personal level. This began with my arrest on 31 August 2015 in the town of Nachikatsuura, a town close to Taiji, for allegedly not having my passport on my person. The police released me without charge the following day after they located my passport in the car I had been driving.

I have been visiting Japan on a regular basis as a tourist for 13 years to document the Taiji drive hunts and to explore the beautiful country - making lifelong friendships with many kind, caring Japanese citizens along the way.

But my regular visits were to come to a heartbreaking halt at the beginning of 2016. On 18th January I was arrested by immigration upon arrival at Narita Airport, was repeatedly interrogated and harassed, and held for 19 days in a Tokyo prison before being deported from the country.

Immigration officials claimed I did not inform them of my travel plans for a trip to Futo on 27th August 2015, and cited this as the reason for my deportation. The trip was un-planned and arranged after I had been through immigration, but officials refused to accept this. The authorities were already adamant about my deportation, and nothing was going to change their minds.

I was detained in bleak conditions in a small prison cell with little food. I lost more than 10 kilos in weight and suffered a minor chest problem, but I refused to give in to the authorities after being incarcerated on trumped up charges. On day 19, the government issued a formal warrant and I was physically placed onto a plane back to my hometown of Miami, Florida. I was treated like a criminal - yet my documentation of the barbaric drive hunts has always been peaceful.

The Japanese government has yet to comment on my deportation - and it is unlikely they ever will. The authorities will do whatever it takes to continue the dolphin slaughter, even if it means violating freedom of speech. Being unjustly deported from Japan has made me more determined than ever to continue the work of exposing these horrendous crimes against nature. They can keep me out, but they can never silence me. That power they do not have.

My deportation is also cause for concern for other activists, including Dolphin Project Cove Monitors, who are committed to exposing the brutal drive hunts. They are the backbone of our campaign in Taiji, documenting and raising awareness of the horrors that take place in the cove, and also monitoring the conditions in which the captive dolphins are kept - including Angel, the albino bottlenose dolphin held at the Taiji Whale Museum.

This season, 22 adult cove monitors came from 15 countries across the world, including the United States, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, United Kingdom, Ireland, Russia, Canada, Bolivia, Malaysia, Japan, Sweden, Thailand, New Zealand and Australia. A total of 12 children from the same countries also came to the cove, to act as youth journalists.

Is there an end in sight?

I write this article from my hotel room in London - a city which I believe holds a major key to ending not only the drive hunts in Taiji, but also raising further awareness of the captive dolphin industry.

On Friday 18th March I attended a protest march from the Daily Mail Group's offices at High Street Kensington, to the Japanese Embassy at Piccadilly. The protest was organised by Lauren Crabtree, 24 year-old founder of activist group Dolphin Defenders UK. Hundreds of people attended with the aim to encourage the media to further highlight the events at Taiji cove, and to place increased pressure on Japanese officials to end the slaughters - which continue to damage the country's reputation.

The demonstration follows a series of protests held in London throughout the 2015/2016 drive hunt season. Further events are being planned for May and September this year, details of which will be published by Dolphin Project.

The pressure is clearly having an effect - my deportation is testament to that. With the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, there is additional duress on the Japanese government to disassociate itself with such cruel animal torture.

Likewise, the world of cetaceans held captive for human entertainment is slowly but surely meeting its demise - proven by SeaWorld's announcement last week that it will end the breeding of orcas at all locations including subsidiary park, Loro Parque, in Tenerife.

The protests are effective, and we need more and more people to attend for our influence to increase. I hope we'll soon see thousands of people at these events. The British people convinced their government to make it extremely difficult for organisations to keep dolphins in captivity, and as a result there are no longer any dolphinaria in the UK. It is only a matter of time before people power also puts a stop to the atrocities in Taiji.

Dolphin Project Cove Monitors will continue to monitor the atrocities in Taiji throughout the upcoming 2016 / 2017 season. May this season will be the very last, with these barbaric hunts consigned to history.



Richard O'Barry is Founder/Director of Dolphin Project. He worked for 10 years in the dolphin captivity industry, and has spent the past 46 working against it. Over the past 46 years, Ric O'Barry has rescued and rehabilitated dolphins in many countries around the world, including Haiti, Colombia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Brazil, South Korea, the Bahamas Islands and the United States. He is a leading voice in the fight to end brutal dolphin hunts in Japan, Solomon Islands, Faroe Islands, Indonesia and wherever else they occur.

Action: Dolphin Project action page.

The book: Behind the Dolphin Smile was published in 1989; a second book, To Free A Dolphin, was published in September 2000. Both are about his work and dedication. O'Barry is the star of the Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove and the Animal Planet television series Blood Dolphin$.