Twitter and world media have been abuzz this week about the Taiji Cove dolphin drive. A practice in a small Japanese town that leads to the death or capture of hundreds of dolphins each year. You may have heard of this before if you are a fan of documentaries. “The Cove” is a documentary by the Oceanic Preservation Society. It came out in 2009 and won the Oscar for “best feature documentary.” If you want to see firsthand accounts of what happens in Taiji, I suggest you check it out. It is available on Netflix DVD, Google play, and Youtube (for a fee).
Not unlike the #Blackfish craze involving the treatment of Orcas in captivity that took the twitter by storm a few months ago, #TheCove has been trending off and on since last Friday when a massive capture of Pacific bottlenose dolphins occurred (even Anonymous got involved). This single event included the capture of over 200 dolphins, the biggest capture in recent years. Relevant links are here and here. Now, not all of the captured animals are killed. Many are captured and forced into captivity in marine parks in Japan and China, as well as many other countries. Japan defended the practice, calling it traditional, but the newly appointed US ambassador to Japan expressed concerns with it.
Japan certainly does have a traditional whaling fishery, but does the dolphin hunting practice have the same claim to historical roots? It seems like the dolphin hunting practice may not have started until after World War II, whereas whaling has been a part of Japans economy for hundreds of years. Whaling was an industry of international significance for hundreds of years until the last century, when many animals were protected and better/ more readily available fuel sources were found (oil from whales was used for lamps). There is an international moratorium on whaling unless it is for scientific research, yet Japan has had ships in the Southern Ocean hunting whales commercially in recent years (fans of the show “Whale Wars” will know about this). In any case, the dolphin capture is not illegal and many dolphins are captured and/or killed each year in Taiji. The official stats from Japan’s fisheries are not always representative, but this website has accurate numbers by species direct from individuals who are in Taiji observing. The most recent stats (from Jan. 21st, 2014) report that 233 bottlenose dolphins were captured, 140 were released, 43 were killed, and 50 were sold into captivity.
The discussion of this issue is active online outside of twitter as well. I recently came across a post on Reddit made by someone who lives in the Faroe islands. This user showed some pictures of the hunt in Japan and in the Faroe islands and then attempted to explain the practice. I think he did a pretty good job. The killing process is quick and humane (I wont go into detail, but Wikipedia will), and in the Faroe islands (they hunt pilot whales, not bottlenose dolphin), they will use the entire animal. Meat is a major part of the diet of an islander and something around 30% of the meat available on the island is from whale. The population of whales in the Pacific is estimated at around 800,000 and the islanders kill somewhere near 1000 whales per year. This is not an enormous part of the population and the whale is not endangered. From a strictly fisheries side of things, this is sustainable artisan fishing that is necessary for subsistence, but is it right to kill marine mammals? Some people will argue that they are of higher intelligence and should not be killed/ captured, others will argue that people need to eat and provide for families, while still others may take a different approach and only argue against captivity because the species is relatively large and known to migrate over considerable distances (so a sessile lifestyle in captivity would not be healthy). Where do we draw the line?
We have seen people come to the aid of marine mammals quite a lot in recent memory. #Blackfish and #TheCove are just two recent phenomena, but as fellow marine science junky and Southerfriedscience contributor David Shiffman (@Whysharksmatter) tweeted earlier this week, why are people always concerned about mammals, but not the other organisms that are dying and endangered? Sure, marine mammals are cute and cool. We all know they are the types of animal that really draw the attention of the general public, but what about David’s favorite sea creatures, sharks? Did you have any idea that 1/4 of all species from the group of animals that includes sharks and rays are endangered? You can read David’s article on the subject here.
If you are a reader of this blog you have probably already heard all about coral reefs and the issues they are facing, but what about the many world fisheries that are on the brink of collapse? We are fishing down the food chain and smaller and smaller species are being depleted at alarming rates. Human activity is doing irreparable damage to places and things that most of us the public have never heard of! All I can do is encourage you to educate yourself on the issues. See both sides, read peer-reviewed literature on the subject if it exists. Try to eat sustainable seafood and help out with a cause if you feel strongly about it. Don’t just focus on megafauna, conservation is about more than saving the manatees (which is great), it is about preserving habitat, natural beauty, sustainability, and stewardship of this planet and its resources. Let us not forget that we would like to pass this world we live in on to the next generation and hopefully many generations to follow. Shortsightedness is something we cannot afford anymore.