What A Bloody Dolphin Hunt In Japan Has In Common With The BP Oil Spill

CREDIT: Sea Shepherd

Japanese Taiji dolphin hunt, January 19.

On Tuesday the annual slaughter of dolphins by Japanese Fishermen ended after several days of intense media scrutiny and public denouncement.

As many as 500 dolphins were penned into a secluded cove near Taiji, a small town along Japan’s Pacific coast, for several days without food before between 50 and 100 were captured or slaughtered with the rest being released.

Bottlenose dolphins coming up against fishing skiffs, January 19.

Bottlenose dolphins coming up against fishing skiffs, January 19.

CREDIT: Sea Shepherd

The yearly event is a Japanese tradition and part of the dolphin hunting season. Many Japanese view the occasion as a local ritual that is within international legal rights.

“Dolphin fishing is one of traditional fishing forms of our country and is carried out appropriately in accordance with the law,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters. “Dolphin is not covered by the International Whaling Commission control and it’s controlled under responsibility of each country.”

The environmental group Sea Shepherd, known for anti-whaling efforts, has been closely monitoring the dolphin hunt and posting frequent updates. According to the group, five pods of Bottlenose dolphins were driven into the cove, including a rare albino calf and its mom. Once in the cove, the dolphins endured several days of duress while fishermen conducted a captivity selection process to determine which dolphins would fetch them the best prices at aquariums and water parks.

Traditionally the dolphins were killed for meat, a local delicacy. However rising mercury levels along with widespread denouncement of the practice has made this less common, gearing the hunts more towards selling live dolphins. While the number of dolphins killed in the annual hunts has gone down by a little over half since 2000, to about 900, the number removed for captivity has gone from as low as 30 to nearly 250 last year.

Baby albino dolphin with pod, January 17.

Baby albino dolphin with pod, January 17.

CREDIT: Sea Shepherd

Of the recent hunt, Sea Shepherd wrote on Monday that “the captive selection process is as violent as the killing in Taiji:”

“During the past four days, dolphins could be seen on our Cove Guardians live stream with blood on their faces as they desperately tried to escape the grasp of the killers and trainers. Dolphins repeatedly became entangled in the nets in their frantic efforts to escape or get to separated family members, the nets cutting through their flesh. The dolphins were further injured when run over by the skiffs being driven right over the pod. At one point, propeller blades of a skiff backed into a huddled grouping. The killers regularly use the outboard motors to intimidate and herd the sound-sensitive dolphins.”

The 2009 Oscar-nominated film The Cove helped bring international attention to Japanese dolphin hunting by exposing bloody and cruel scenes of dolphin slaughter and struggle. With the latest hunt, U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy shined a harsh spotlight on the practice by tweeting:

Yoshinobu Nisaka, the governor of Wakayama prefecture, where Taiji is located, reacted strongly to Kennedy’s statement, saying “dietary culture varies and it is the wisdom of civilization to mutually respect others’ standpoints unless the world faces a lack of resources. We take away the lives of animals like of cows and pigs daily. It is not appropriate to say only dolphin hunting is cruel.”

While the Japanese argument for continuing to hunt dolphins seems to eschew the specific concerns about the inhumaneness of the process, it does point out that animal cruelty is a much more complex and nuanced topic that is oftentimes more easily ignored than acknowledged.

In the wild, marine animals are increasingly at risk due to changes incurred by human activity. Recent research has shown that increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are acidifying oceans at an unprecedented rate. According to ClimateProgress’s coverage of the report, “by 2100, ocean acidification is predicted to increase by 170 percent if current rates of greenhouse gas emissions continue. More acidic water will make the oceans unlivable for about 30 percent of ocean species.”

While hard-shelled species like oysters and clams, as well as corals, are in the most immediate danger and are already struggling in many areas, climate change may be impacting marine mammals like dolphins already too. In 2013 more than 1,000 bottleneck dolphins died from a measles-like virus in a rare epidemic that last occurred 25 years ago. Happening all along the U.S. eastern seaboard, scientists are unsure of what caused the outbreak this year. Considerations around ocean pollution and global warming are being investigated as possibly increasing the dolphin’s susceptibility to the disease.

A recent study led by scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that dolphins living in the Gulf of Mexico were suffering from lung damage, hormonal levels and other health effects likely associated with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“I’ve never seen such a high prevalence of very sick animals — and with unusual conditions such as adrenal hormone abnormalities,” Lori Schwacke, the lead author of the study, said in a statement.

In the introduction of his new book “Wild Ones,” journalist Jon Mooallem points out that by the end of the century scientists predict that half of all living species will could be extinct.

In the book Mooallem talks about “shifting baselines syndrome” in which expectations about the natural world are based on recent indications, rather than natural or untouched scenarios. For instance, depleted fisheries were evaluated by experts using baselines from the beginning of their careers rather than historical data. Mooallem writes, “overfishing may deplete fish stocks, but the next generation doesn’t see the oceans as depleted; that depleted condition becomes their baseline, against which they’ll measure any subsequent losses in their lifetimes.”

The Japanese hunted dolphins and whales long before human activity threatened their populations and native environments — the humaneness of the activity didn’t change, our perspective did. But the world we inhabit now is much more delicate, as human dominance and drive for growth is waging an ancillary war against the millions of other species on earth. The Japanese are acting inhumane according to this shifting baseline, but climate change will likely be the most devastating inhumane occurrence for a very long time.