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The Cove wins Oscar and brings attention to dolphin hunting in Taiji, Japan

March 8, 2010

Happy Monday! Did you have a good weekend? It was beautiful here, in the 50s and sunny . . . couldn’t have asked for anything better.

I ended the weekend by watching the Academy Awards last night, and was thrilled that The Cove won for best documentary! If you haven’t heard of it, the film is about a cove in Taiji, Wakayama, Japan where roughly 20,000 dolphins and other cetaceans are hunted and killed annually. Though Taiji cove area is closed to the public, Ric O’Barry, Louie Psihoyos and the Ocean Preservation Society worked to have underwater camera and sound crews secretly film the practices and hunting techniques of Taiji fisherman.

Ric O’Barry, who originally helped capture and train the five dolphins that played the role of “flipper” in the tv series, is featured in the documentary and is currently the Campaign Director for Save Japan Dolphins. He advocates strongly that dolphins are intelligent animals that are not fit for captivity and that the needless slaughter of the dolphins in Taiji is inhumane. Much of the dolphin meat that is sold is labelled as “whale meat” and contains toxic levels of mercury for the Japanese consuming it.

The technique for hunting dolphins in Japan is called “dolphin drive hunting” and is pretty awful. Essentially, fisherman make loud, disorienting noise in the water to drive dolphins into a small bay, which is then closed off with boats and nets. The dolphins are left for a little while to calm down, then are killed one-by-one in a gruesome (and often undocumented) manner.

Though many of the dolphins are killed for their meat, a large number of dolphins are also sold to dolphinariums. These exist in many parts of the world, the United States included.

photo by David Bjorgen, via wikipedia

I think we in the U.S. need to seriously consider keeping cetaceans in captivity, as many view it as animal abuse. Dolphins, for example, can swim 40 – 50 miles a DAY in the open ocean and are considered highly intelligent (one of the reasons they are kept in dolphinariums and trained to do tricks). But what does it mean to keep an intelligent animal in a small pool? The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) says this:

According to US regulations, dolphin pens only need to be 30 x 30 feet and only six feet deep. With the current US standards, a dolphin would have to circle its pen more than 1,700 times everyday to simulate its natural swimming range in the wild . . . Even in the largest facilities, captive dolphins have access to less than 1/10,000 of 1% (0.000001) of the space available to them in their natural environment. Dolphins in captivity are often restricted to swimming in circles. In many dolphins, this behavior is a sign that the dolphin is suffering psychologically; it is engaging in what is known as a stereotypical behavior. For an inquisitive, intelligent creature like the dolphin, a barren tank offers no exploratory stimuli compared to the vast, complex ocean.

Looking back on the recent incident at SeaWorld, it seems even more ridiculous that we keep whales and dolphins in captivity for our own enjoyment. Many people mistakenly think that animals in captivity are rescued or helping conservation efforts, and in a very few cases, this may be somewhat true. But, the majority of the time, cetaceans are captured illegally, promoting hunts like those going on in Taiji, Japan.

So, without depressing you too much, I think it’s important to draw attention to documentaries like The Cove, but also to consider why such tragedies are happening. If there were no multi-million dollar market for dolphins that do tricks, or for ‘whale meat’ . . . would these Taiji fishermen still be going on these annual hunts?

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