Dolphins have a tendency to bring out the compassion in humans all around the world. Yet while their adorable faces may make many gawk, and emotional and logical intelligence continue to wow scientists (they are considered the second most intelligent animal on the planet), in some places, they are killed in huge numbers in brutal fashions. Such actions has brought particular international attention and condemnation of the government of Japan.
Dolphin hunting, referred to as ‘driving’, is permitted by the Japanese government and justfied for the following reasons. Firstly, they insist it is an important part of some local cultures; secondly economically positive; thirdly, (although conservationists say that this is unconvincing) they argue unless these populations are kept under control, the dolphins will eat all the fish. The hunting is essentially a form of ‘pest control’. The hunting methods have been brought under specific scrutiny. To round up dolphins, metal poles are struck to the bottom of the ocean creating a reverberating sound that leaves dolphins, with their sensitive sound perceptions, stunned. They are then cornered into netted areas (access to which is blocked off to the public with fences) left for the evening to ‘calm down’, before being knived and speared to death. Referred to as ‘oikoimi’, the dolphins, once impaled and weakened, oscillate and scream wildly from the pain and as the surrounding bay turns a deep shade of red, the animals are individually dragged onboard the hunting boats with pikes to be stabbed and clubbed. Throughout Japan, over 25,000 dolphins are killed every year, yet the focus of the industry, since the release of the Oscar-winning film The Cove (which intends on creating a campaign to put a stop to all dolphin killings and the mammals’ use in entertainment), has been based on the town of Taiji. Supporters of the hunt accuse critics of failing to see how important the driving is to historic traditions, economy and community. Bizarre, considering how others in the town claim to have been totally oblivious the practice occurred so close to where they live.
The film was blocked for view in cinemas throughout Japan, largely due to applied pressure from Japanese nationalists who argued it represented an attack, was full of falsities and indicated cultural racism on the part of the producers. Questions of national pride were used to challenge those who insisted on showing the film and death threats were common. The history of the Japanese far right’s violent activism is well-known throughout the country. Yet the film, as the producer Louie Psihoyos made clear, was not intended to denounce the nation, but to stimulate public debate, particularly because many Japanese did not know that, firstly, dolphin meat is sold in some parts of the country, and secondly that the species are killed in such a vast scale. One of the aspects of the debate is how the meat itself is unhealthy: the mercury present in dolphin meat is recorded at toxic levels for humans to consume. Psihoyos indicated the troublesome argument of the debate, the “tragic irony…the only way to save the dolphin now is to prove that we’ve made its environment so toxic that we can’t eat them.” Responding to claims of racism, Psihoyos claimed the film was not intended as an attempt to bash Japan, but rather as a ‘love letter’ for the country to campaign against the huntings. It was, in fact, shown at the Tokyo film festival, amid strong protests. The Japanese government have, to this day, defended the hunts as within the law, and although the numbers killed has decreased, largely due to international pressure since the film, the hunts still go on. Is there any possibility they will stop completely?
Well, the hunts have been brought to public attention again amidst the more recent debate that has arisen in the political sphere of environmentalism: that dolphins are worthy of legislative rights. The American Association for the Advancement of Science announced this year their right to life should be enshrined in legislation under the ground of being ‘non human’ persons. Based on studies which have illustrated the species’ heightened sense of emotions, self-awareness and consciousness (ability to fully identify with themselves as individuals), the proposed rights would extend to all cetacean species. Examples of heightened intelligence in cetaceans, and even morality are easy to find. Dolphins have helped humans at sea. In Iceland, species of whales help fishermen to catch fish and, in return, receive some of the goods. Off the coast of Patagonia, orcas were found helping an elderly dolphin with a broken jaw to eat. In tests on conceptions of shapes and numbers, they received the same results as humans. In one instance they were even able to ‘outsmart’ their owners.
Under such circumstances, an increasing number of scientists believe the sense of intelligence and high level of empathy in the species requires some kind of special treatment for their preservation. The language from the UN and charities towards the populations has been noted to have changed by Chris Butler-Stroud of the Preservation Society- from ‘stocks’ to ‘populations’ for example. The UN is engaged currently in projects to protect the animals, all that is left is for their treatment to be enshrined and enforced more seriously in international law. Until then, the hunts illustrated in places such as Taiji will continue.