So far, Taiji fishermen have slaughtered pilot whales, but some dolphins have been spared, according to Sea Shepherd––concluding some progress has been made. But it's not enough.
AFP's report of the start of the dolphin slaughter at Taiji inaccurately framed the story as if all Japanese people side with dolphin slaughter as a matter of "tradition." That's like thinking all Canadians side with baby seal hunters, or all French people eat horses as a matter of "tradition."
The conflict at Taiji is not about a culture war between Japan and the rest of the world––over the ostensible tradition of killing dolphins. Many Japanese dolphin sympathizers (including multi-generational vegetarian Buddhists, PETA Asia-Pacific supporters, and members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society) side with millions of people worldwide who want to end the dolphin and pilot whale killings at Taiji.
Instead, the real purpose of the Japanese government's support of the Taiji slaughter is about the fishing industry's elimination of natural predatory competition and providing some extra income to Taiji fishermen from the sale of the dolphins to marine amusement parks. Taiji is one brutal facet of a larger conflict between dolphins (and other sea animals) and the global fishing industry.
Media attention generated by Ric O'Barry's activist documentary The Cove depicting the dolphin killings at Taiji as a cultural issue obscures the big picture context of this planetary drama with related scenes playing out worldwide. In Florida, angry fishermen made headlines this past summer by pipe bombing and shooting bottle-nosed dolphins playfully pulling fish from their lines. Around the world, commercial fishing nets kill 300,000 dolphins, porpoises and whales (and millions of other sea animals including endangered loggerhead turtles and sharks) every year:
“Almost 1,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises die every day in nets and fishing gear. That’s one every two minutes," said Dr Susan Lieberman, Director of WWF's Global Species Programme. "Some species are being pushed to the brink of extinction. Urgent action is needed - and we developed this ranking to help governments and aid agencies know where their money and efforts can really make a difference."The large scale deaths of sea mammals is euphemistically called "cetacean bycatch." And political leaders, commercial fishermen's organisations, supermarkets, fish processors, and consumers of fish are not addressing this tragedy. Some fisheries even use captured dolphins as bait to catch more fish. Environmental pollution and insensitive development projects also impact cetaceans.
(Baiji Photo © Institute of Hydrobiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences)
Dolphins at special risk include the Pink Dolphins of Hong Kong; Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphins and Bottlenose Dolphins in the Indian Ocean; Irrawaddy dolphins in the Malampaya Sound in the Philippines, the Mekong river, the Mahakam river in Indonesia, and a few thousand newly discovered Irrawady dolphins along the Bangladesh coast. The Yangtze River dolphin (the Baiji) is the world's most endangered cetacean––or the most recently extinct. 2002 marked the last documented sighting of the species; 2006 surveys failed to find any in its native Yangtze River––the Three Gorges Dam destroyed its habitat. According to the ICNU Red List of Threatened Species, fishing nets, electric fishing practices, boat propeller strikes, dam construction, river siltation (from deforestation and agricultural expansion), and pollution all contributed to the Baiji's plight. (The ICNU asserted in July that the global wildlife and biodiversity crisis is worse than the economic crisis. The reasons: overfishing, overhunting and loss of habitat. One third of the ocean's sharks are also at risk, killed by the same commercial fishing nets killing cetaceans). Dolphin species are also at risk in Hawaii, Tahiti, Patagonia, Peru, New Zealand, and the North Atlantic (where 50-70% of the native whales bear scars from net entanglement).
Contrary to Taiji fisherman who claim dolphin killing is a traditional practice, the director of The Cove rightly notes that the Taiji slaughter only goes back to the Meiji regime (1868-1912)––when the authoritarian government instituted a slew of "invented traditions" intended to undermine more established forms of Japanese culture. Before the Meiji era, the Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1868) prohibited meat-eating (associated with Christianity and European culture). Previously, Buddhist and folk Shinto precepts inculcated a widespread reverent attitude towards animals and nature. Meiji leaders attempted to subvert these faith traditions in their attempt to redirect religious allegiance to the cult of State Shinto they created. Moreover, large-scale dolphin killings at Taiji only began in 1969, (Sea Shepherd Captain Paul Watson underscores that whaling is also not a traditional Japanese practice: "Modern pelagic whaling was initiated by General Douglas MacArthur in 1946. He established the modern whaling fleet."
O'Barry's global spotlight on Taiji is crucial for heightening awareness about dolphins and other cetaceans. The spotlight needs to grow larger and include the other hundreds of thousands of dolphins and other sea creatures being killed as collateral damage by the worldwide fishing industry.
According to Paul Watson, the reason Canadian salmon fishermen kill baby seals in British Columbia is to eliminate natural predatory competitors for Atlantic salmon brought to those waters by the fishing industry (as well as make side income from selling the pelts to the Canadian fur industry which already kills 300,000 baby seals on the East Coast along with 2 million other animals every year). Which is worse––being harpooned by a Japanese fisherman; or struggling to death in a fishing net (suffering from broken beaks and torn fins); or being clubbed and skinned alive by a Canadian fisherman? And how must a captured dolphin feel when taken from its family and sold to a marine amusement park or "swim-with dolphin" programs at theme parks, harbors, gambling casinos and even shopping malls?
Twenty years ago, Hardy Jones, founder of BlueVoice.org, went to Taiji––returning repeatedly seeking to end the capture of dolphins and pilot whales in Japan. BlueVoice.org has not only taken on the issue of intentional hunts of dolphins and whales, but also the fishing net and industrial pollution kills of cetaceans around the world. Its wonderful website offers a number of online videos on saving dolphins and pilot whales; of dolphins in captivity; and just being "Among Dolphins."
To the extent of sometimes verbally and physically clashing with fishermen and whale hunters (and even fellow environmentalist NGO Greenpeace because it chooses to "witness" but not directly confront its opposition and allegedly provides non-vegetarian food for its crew), Sea Shepherd Conservation Society pursues even larger goals of safeguarding all marine species and ecosystems all over the planet. Its website and a supporting site (Ocean Sentry) provides forthright, up-to-date news (and suggestions for action) on this subject.