I’ve been meaning for a few weeks to write an article on the complex and controversial annual drive hunt of dolphins in the Taiji Cove in my native Japan, and I believe I have finally collected both my feelings on the subject and the relevant facts enough to present a well-argued, compelling viewpoint. For those unfamiliar with the issue, the bulk of this hunt takes place between January and March. During it, hundreds of dolphins are driven into an artificially sealed cove using underwater sound techniques and held there for several days until they meet one of 3 fates – being sold into captivity, being slaughtered for meat, and being released back into the wild. Those are the neutral facts and about the only ones everyone on all sides of the issue agrees on. Before we move into more controversial aspects of this practice, let’s dispel a few wildly inaccurate myths.
Myth #1: “Tradition”
It is true that whaling, dolphin hunting, and fishing using similar techniques date back 100s of years in the small coastal towns of the rural Wakayama region; according to some accounts as far back as the 1600s. However, the majority of this so-called ‘tradition’ was confined for most of that time to locals fishing and hunting for subsistence in eras when neither commercial meat production nor the capture of animals for captivity was widespread. The drive hunt only began to reach its modern scale and organizational complexity in the 1960s, not coincidentally around the same time that captive marine mammal entertainment became a popular attraction, particularly in North America. The Prefectural and Federal government’s frequent references to the drive hunt as “Japanese tradition” in response to critics are nothing more than disingenuous attempts to discourage the public from looking deeper into the practice, as well as to discredit critics as foreigners disrespecting domestic culture. While this does not by itself make the critics right, the drive hunt in its modern form and scope is about as “traditional” as transistor radios. Japanese public officials might be taken more seriously if they would acknowledge this rather than trying to distract from it.
Myth #2: “Food Culture”
Almost as inaccurate as the tradition myth and far more emotion-baiting is the common reference to this practice as “Japanese food culture,” this one often peddled by the fishermen engaged in it and their public relations officers. The term “food culture” makes this practice sound as if it is the backbone of Japanese meat production and threatening it would condemn Japan’s poor to starvation. The reality is that few Japanese actually consume whale or dolphin meat, and to take one more stab at the “tradition” myth – this has ALWAYS been the case. Consumption of this type of meat is largely limited to small coastal towns whose culture has included it for centuries, and hence does not explain the demand for the scope of this slaughter.
Myth #3: “Shockingly Inhumane”
“Shock” is subjective, but the activists that oppose this drive hunt persistently and desperately avoid context. Much attention is given in coverage to the methods used. The auditory techniques used in drive hunts are generally stressful to the animals involved, and once they are confined many reports indicate they are subjected to hunger and stress from overcrowding as they await the selection process in the cove – often for several days. Dolphins, of course, are intelligent mammals that have emotional ties to members of their pods; and being separated from or watching pod members die is also extremely stressful, especially for young dolphins that are then often released to fend for themselves in the wild. Finally, while reports on this vary, some activists insist that the methods used to actually kill the dolphins are themselves stressful and painful.
While no one is insisting the drive hunt is fun for the dolphins or pleasant to watch, anyone that believes this treatment of animals is unusually cruel ought to read up on widely accepted practices in modern commercial agriculture. This is especially true of the United States where large agricultural corporations run the industry. Common are such ‘charming’ practices as de-beaking poultry and then force-feeding them to be so overweight they cannot stand up, subjecting cows and pigs to confined spaces so small they cannot turn around, slaughterhouses that would make any of these animals WISH they were a dolphin in Taiji, and genetic modifications to both the animals and their food that are so disfiguring onlookers may not even recognize the animal. Not only is all this perfectly legal, it is heavily subsidized with US tax dollars.
Without defending the drive hunt, the espousing of this double standard by over-zealous activists is very relevant and does more harm than good. Many of the groups involved, unsurprisingly, are animal rights extremists – advocating against all animal captivity and consumption altogether, often for spiritual reasons, and treating all commercial agriculture as Satan’s spawn. That war is impossible to win openly – a relief, seeing as blanket closure of commercial agriculture would produce mass global famines; if you don’t believe me, research the prevalence of famines in Europe, North America, and Japan before the late 19th century. Hence, the activists are prone to singling out instances where onlooker emotions are likely to prevail over logic; and the unsightly slaughter of helpless dolphins – animals we paradoxically consider charming due to decades of their use in entertainment – creates a propagandist feeding frenzy, pun intentional. Point out to these activists that the dolphins are treated no worse than cows, pigs, and chickens in their country of origin and they explode into a logic devoid tantrum in a desperate attempt to dodge the exposition.
Now that I’ve quite deservedly torn apart both sides in this ridiculous propaganda war, let’s examine what really goes on in Taiji on an annual basis. As you may have guessed from hints I placed in the previous section, the real economic incentive is the capture of dolphins for captivity and entertainment purposes. According to National Geographic, a live dolphin sold into captivity yields the seller $10,000s, and with rare specimens that have features preferred for performance and entertainment that number can climb into $100,000s. Compare this with the meat yielded by one slaughtered dolphin being worth several hundred dollars, and the mysteries of the Taiji drive hunt suddenly lay bare before us.
The purpose of the drive hunt and cove confinement is to facilitate specimen selection for captivity and entertainment. Sure, there is also subsequent selection of specimens for slaughter that can yield more meat, but there would not be without the captivity selection factor – the profit margin of dolphin meat by itself simply does not justify the costs of such a complex exercise. There is some local dolphin meat culture and a few dolphin fishermen would still go out into the open ocean every year and kill dolphins for meat, and the activists would still complain, and no one would care. Taiji owes its specific practices and the scale on which they are performed to being a specimen selection ground for the entertainment industry, and this also explains why Taiji is the location of choice for them. Unlike simple meat hunting, specimen selection requires a drive hunt and cove confinement, and a combination of legal loopholes and notoriously corrupt local politicians makes Taiji one of the few locations in the world where both are still legal.
What’s truly depressing about Taiji is that the centrality of the entertainment industry to the entire spectacle is not denied by anyone involved – it’s just something neither side mentions unprompted. The industries and politicians defending it avoid this inconvenient fact for obvious reasons, and the animal rights activists are too busy trying to use it as a launch pad for an all-out war on meat. A re-evaluation of commercial agriculture’s shady practices and its public subsidies in the US is long overdue; but that is a far more complex issue that has little to do with Taiji. Cheaply produced, low quality food – even if it’s inhumane – is the sole means by which millions of people avoid starvation. For this reason, advocacy against agricultural efficiency for the sake of animal rights invariably balances against human rights; and the ideologues that wish to tie Taiji to agricultural animal treatment altogether will, thankfully, lose every time.
However, as I have made clear, the Taiji drive hunt has nothing to do with neither agriculture nor meat consumption; and anyone genuinely wanting this horror to stop ought to focus on its purpose as opposed to number of dolphins involved or methods used. Watching captive dolphins perform at Sea World is not a ‘human right’ recognized by any reputable organization I have ever heard of. If said entertainment industry can afford to pay $100,000s per dolphin, then there is absolutely no excuse for the treatment these animals are subjected to in the interests of reducing the costs of their capture and selection. Stricter regulations and oversight are likely to drive up the costs of capture and selection. But no one will be hungry or culturally impoverished as a result, and I am deeply unconcerned by the shrinking profit margins of fishermen’s unions, disappearing bribes of politicians, and rising costs of a ticket to Sea World. Unlike a need for a food, Dolphin shows in no way justify these practices; and opening the world
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