Article by Genevieve Wauchope for Australia for Dolphins.
Late last year, you may have heard that J16, an orca from the southern resident population of the North Pacific had a newborn calf. This is exciting news for those who follow the fate of Seaworld’s orcas. J16’s pod was reduced to 67 in 1971 when about 50 were killed or captured from Puget Sound for the aquarium trade. Their population has since been hovering around the mid-80’s since the early 2000’s.
Due to Seaword’s infamy since Blackfish, most people have heard the story of the J16 pod.
However, there is another, similar orca capture story from Taiji that is not as well known. Those stolen from Taiji didn’t live for nearly as long as those taken from Puget Sound. Not many people realise that there are orcas living off the coast of Japan. But following the hunts of the 1950’s and 60’s, Japan’s resident orca populations were decimated and have never recovered.
The family of ten orcas captured in Taiji in 1997 were reportedly the first to be seen around Japan in a decade. They were driven into the Cove, five were taken, and five chased back out into open water (orcas won’t leave the area voluntarily without their family members) – one was visibly bleeding, and a calf was in “very bad condition”. Nothing is known of what happened to the remaining pod.
Those caught were reportedly sold for $US250,000 each. Of those caught, a calf separated from its mother in the capture died soon afterwards (you can hear the baby calling for her here) a young pregnant female aborted her baby, and she and a young male were dead within months. Ten years later, another female died alone in an aquarium, followed the next year by the last female of the group. They have come to be remembered as the Taiji Ten.
So what does all this have to do with the Taiji dolphin hunts?
In the first instance, it clearly demonstrates that there is an economic, rather than a cultural, imperative at work here. Selling dolphins and small whales to aquaria is a very lucrative business, worth millions of dollars – exports exceeded $15 million between 2002-2012, (sales figures to Japanese aquaria are not available).
Secondly, over a million small cetaceans have been slaughtered or sold from Japan’s waters over the last 70 years. Numbers of all species targeted are declining, some significantly.
Quotas remain high, despite evidence of the impact on local populations. It is difficult to measure that impact accurately – for six of the nine species targeted by the hunters, population assessments are more than 20 years old. More recent surveys cover a wider area than is targeted, so do not accurately reflect the populations affected by the hunts. But we do know that there are fewer being caught, and fewer seen around Japan’s waters.
The IWC Scientific community stated in reference to Risso’s dolphins that “It was desirable that no animals be taken until we have a clearer understanding of the status of the stock. Yet, under the Taiji quota, 261 can be slaughtered or sold in the 2014-15 season in Taiji.
By the 1990’s, it is believed that the drive hunts had “depleted coastal stocks of striped dolphins to less than 10 per cent of the post-World War II level”. In the 2014-2015 season, 450 striped dolphins can be slaughtered or sold.
Other species, such as the Pan-Tropical Spotted Dolphin, have exhibited a possible decline in the minimum age of sexual maturity in females (a response to population decline) and annual catches have also been in decline.
Altogether, 1,938 dolphins can be slaughtered or sold from the Cove this season. That’s a big number for species that have already lost so many. It also does not include calves that are dumped back out to sea, unlikely to survive without their mother; those that drown, or die of shock or their injuries.
Young females are also now being targeted for ‘swim with dolphins’ programs. Removing these dolphins, so important to maintain population numbers, will also impact heavily on the pods’ ability to survive.
Dolphins are an apex predator – they play a very important role in keeping the ocean ecosystem in balance. Some research also indicates that dolphin meat contains high levels of mercury and other poisons, prompting Japan to remove pilot whale meat from its school lunches.
The hunts are unmistakably, indescribably cruel. But the repercussions of these hunts will be felt far further than what is endured by those driven into the Cove. It will be felt in the Taiji community, who may one day be faced with the harsh reality that there are no more dolphins and whales in their waters. And it will also be felt in the marine ecosystem. An ecosystem that is already under significant pressure, and facing the threat of collapse.