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Six Years Later: Did 'The Cove' Impact Dolphin Hunting in Japan?

Melissa Cronin

Melissa Cronin

The number of dolphins hunt and captured is down, but the hunt is still going strong.

Last Tuesday, a 75-year-old American man named Ric O'Barry was arrested in Japan around 10 PM for driving without a passport. While paparazzi snapped photos, he was taken from his car to a local jail. After calls from the embassy and at least one Congressman, the man was quietly released 24 hours later.

O'Barry, formerly a dolphin trainer for the TV show Flipper, has been a target for Japanese police for years. Rocketed to fame by the Oscar-winning film The Cove in 2009, O'Barry has been trying to convince—or force—local fishermen to stop hunting dolphins for decades. But fishermen set out in boats this week once again, looking for dolphins. Has anything changed in the six years since The Cove came out?

The fishermen of Taiji call the hunt a local tradition. Using speed boats, they corral massive pods of tens or even hundreds of dolphins and push them into a secluded cove on the island, where they are either killed for meat or captured.

Over the past few decades, the hunt's focus has shifted from butchering dead animals to capturing them alive so they can be trained and sold to aquariums and marine parks. According to the Oceanic Preservation Society, the organization that produced The Cove, just one live dolphin can fetch upwards of $200,000.

Ric O'Barry in Japan with an albino dolphin caught in Taiji. Credit: DolphinProject.net

Now, critics say, the hunt has become part of a large commercial industry. Dolphins, whose complex emotional and cognitive abilities have been demonstrated by scientists, shouldn't be used for meat or for entertainment, they argue.

The tide may be changing, however.

Last year in Taiji, due to declining demand for meat, increased awareness about the hunt, and pressure from activists, the number of dolphins slaughtered and taken captive hit a record low.

Japan's country-wide dolphin catch is now down to less than 6,000 animals from 23,000 when the film was released, said The Cove's director, Louie Psihoyos, in part because of the gruesome images of dying dolphins and blood-red water that splashed across film screens in the US and elsewhere.

Activists also pressured the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) to cut ties with its member group in Japan, the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA), because it certified marine parks that bought captive dolphins from the hunt. WAZA suspended the Japanese branch last April. Shortly after, JAZA released a statement saying that it would officially ban its members from acquiring dolphins from the Taiji dolphin drive fisheries.

Another reason the dolphin hunt is losing supporters is the meat itself, which is widely known to be contaminated with dangerously high levels of mercury and PCBs. One 2010 government report found that Taiji's 3,500 residents had mercury levels that were above the national average. The country's Health Ministry has cautioned people about eating dolphin meat before, noting that many samples of dolphin meat in Japan have been found to exceed the safe limit for mercury levels—some as high as 5,000 times over.

Nevertheless, the hunting boats are still heading out. The Taiji Fishermen's Union, which sets yearly quotas for the hunt, is allowing hunters to capture or slaughter a total of 1,873 cetaceans (whales and dolphins) during the 2015-2016 season. They can take 462 bottlenose dolphins, 450 striped dolphins, 400 pantropical spotted dolphins, 256 Risso's dolphins, 134 Pacific white-sided dolphins, 101 pilot whales, and 70 false killer whales.

Image: Oceanic Preservation Society

"I wish I could say that you make a movie, and the world changes the next day. But it takes a while for culture to catch up," Psihoyos told Motherboard.

He and the Oceanic Preservation Society just recently bought the rights to release The Cove for the first time in Japan, where many citizens are unaware about the hunts in Taiji.

"Hopefully, they are just as horrified as western audiences have been," he said. "Most people there don't believe it. They just can't believe the horror that goes on inside their own borders."