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article imageSome people in Japan don't take mercury contamination seriously Special

By Elizabeth Batt     Apr 24, 2012 in Environment
Tsukuba - Sakae Hemmi of Elsa Nature Conservancy in Japan, discusses the toxicity of dolphins and why the Japanese government, despite tests to the contrary, insists the meat is safe to consume. Elsa also reveals the number of dolphins captured and sold abroad.
Digital Journal first caught up with Sakae Hemmi towards the end of March when she discussed the struggle within her country to educate Japanese citizens on the toxicity of dolphin meat.
Sakae Hemmi and her husband Professor Eiji Fujiwara have been involved in conservation for 36 years. Together they formed Elsa Nature Conservancy, an NGO founded in 1976 with the primary mission of persuading their fellow countrymen to cherish and respect all life forms on our planet, particularly whales and dolphins.
Elsa has been testing dolphin meat purchased in and around Taiji for toxic substances for over a decade. Their latest round of testing – conducted jointly with between May 2011 and Jan. 2012, revealed how contaminated dolphin meat was.
All of the meat Elsa purchased, came from from various outlets in and around Taiji and was from different areas of the mammal: the belly, tail or blubber. The results of the tests were alarming. Every one tested higher (in one or more areas), than the provisional regulatory levels of mercury, methyl mercury and PCBs established by the Japanese government.
For example, dolphin meat from Shimoji in Tanabe City, Wakayama, tested 3.5 times higher than the maximum allowance level (MAL) for mercury, (1.4 T-Hg ppm over the allowed 0.4 ppm); 2.1 times higher than the MAL for methy mercury, (0.63 M-Hg ppm over the allowed 0.3 M-Hg ppm), and 1.64 times higher than the MAL for PCBs, (0.82 ppm over 0.5 ppm).
In one instance, meat taken from the tail of a pilot whale purchased from the supermarket of Taiji Fishing Cooperative, tested 18.3 times higher than the MAL for mercury and 8.66 times higher than the MAL for methyl mercury. Furthermore, blubber taken from the belly of a dolphin was high for PCBs, 19.2 times higher in fact, than the MAL.
PCBs belong to a broad family of man-made organic chemicals known as chlorinated hydrocarbons. They range in toxicity. PCBs were domestically manufactured from 1929 until their manufacture was banned in 1979. PCBs persist in the environment and have been found in sea water far from where they were released. Taken up by fish and large mammals such as dolphins, people who ingest them, may be exposed to PCBs that have bioaccumulated.
Hemmi told Digital Journal:
"Dolphin meat, including meat of gondou, [pilot whale], is contaminated with mercury, methyl mercury, and PCBs. Elsa has tested dolphin meat from the drive hunt in both Futo and Taiji for about ten years. (Futo has suspended the hunt since 2005.) We think that dolphin meat will be contaminated with other toxic substances too, and now we worry about radioactive contamination.
Fundamentally we visit the actual spots and buy the meat harvested by the drive hunt, and have it tested. We use the laboratory that our government authorised, which is important not to give any excuse to our government that the results are doubtful or incorrect. Testing charges are very high. However, to test dolphin meat and to spread the results of the tests are very important to protect human health."
In past years, Elsa has revealed mercury levels as high as 48 times the MAL for mercury and 20-23 times higher than MAL for methyl mercury. This came from a bottlenose dolphin captured in a 2004 drive hunt in Futo.
You essentially call the dolphins of Taiji, "contaminated living creatures, equivalent to industrial waste." How many Japanese people actually eat dolphin meat and are they aware of how toxic the meat has become?
It's very difficult to answer how many people eat dolphin meat in Japan. I'm afraid even our government doesn't answer you. The consumption of whale meat, including dolphin meat, is low. Calculations based on statistics released by the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), show the consumption of whale and dolphin meat is only about 1% that of pork, and accounts for less than 0.5 % of the total consumption of beef, pork, and fowl. (I think that it is less than that at present.) It is evident that whale/dolphin meat is no longer something that the Japanese must absolutely eat.
According to our research in 2008, 68% of the people replied that they had no knowledge of mercury contamination of dolphin meat and 25% had heard about it but did not know the details. In other words, the result shows that more than 90% of the consumers are unaware that dolphin meat can be contaminated with mercury.
This is almost the same results of a research done by a scientist we worked with. I think that the number of people who know about mercury contamination of dolphin meat have increased, but our government always announces that it is safe to consume dolphin meat, if people consume it following governmental advice. I'm afraid that many people don't take mercury contamination seriously. Contamination of radioactivity is more concerning at present.
Why does the Japanese government allow it to be sold? Is it exported to other countries?
I don't think that dolphin meat is exported. I heard that once Taiji tried to export whale meat, not dolphin meat, but failed. Our government doesn't take the contamination seriously. If the government prohibits the sale of contaminated meat, they have to stop the dolphin drive – the source of dolphin meat. It is against governmental policies.
Hemmi shares data on the number of dolphins captured in drive hunts in Futo and Taiji
We asked Sakae Hemmi how many dolphins per year the drives typically harvested, and whether she had witnessed any misconceptions in the Western media with regard to statistics or data? She shared several lists with us adding that "sometimes the Western media uses very old information."
According to Elsa, between 2000 and 2010, 15,454 dolphins have been caught in the drive hunts off the coast of Taiji. This included 4,936 striped dolphin, 4,326 bottlenose dolphin, 1,450 spotted, 3,207 Risso's, 1,366 short-finned pilot whales, 83 false killer whales and 86 Pacific white-sided dolphins.
In Futo, no hunts took place between 2000-2003 and 2005-2010, but in a report by Hemmi called “Japan's Dolphin Drive Fisheries: Propped up by the Aquarium Industry and ‘Scientific Studies,” the conservationist describes how 100 bottlenose dolphins were driven into Futo harbor in 2004.
Hemmi wrote a brief report on the incident at Futo which was included in the Jan. 2005 newsletter of Cetacean Society International, and is available at Elsa's website.
Hemmi's findings were later included in a 2006 report called "Driven by Demand," which is online at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. It describes what happened to the dolphins driven into Futo harbor:
"Fourteen dolphins were selected by six different aquaria and five were slaughtered and used for "research" purposes and human consumption. At least four other dolphins died of suffocation or shock, and the surviving dolphins were reportedly released, one having been fitted with a radio transmitter."
It went on to explain however, that many of these dolphins were released with serious injuries which compromised their survival. It was suggested that dolphin "bodies were recovered from the harbor during the night of the release."
In other cases, Elsa reports how the striped dolphin was over hunted by 60 animals in 2008. And in 2010, Taiji town extended its hunting season by one month. This allowed fishermen to hunt short-finned pilot whales and false killer whales until May 31, 2011. Elsa explained that the Japan Fishery Agency and Wakayama prefecture always insist the fishermen have the right to change the hunting season.
But what of the dolphins captured for captivity?
Data gathered by the conservation group between 2002-2008, taken from documents by the Trade Statistics of Japan issued by the Financial Bureau, the Taiji Town Assembly and correspondence with Taiji Town, said: China purchased 99 dolphins; Taiwan 17; Iran and Turkey 12 each, the United Arab Emirates 4, and the Philippines, eight.
Prices paid for the dolphins ranged from 1,351 (1,000 yen) per animal up to 5,677 (1,000 yen) per animal for a grand total amount of 649, 791 (1,000 yen). At this time, 1 US dollar was less than 100 yen.
Many of the dolphins Elsa said, were exported by the Taiji local government through its affiliated corporation named “Taiji Town Development Public Corporation,” which sells dolphins belonging to Taiji Whale Museum and Isana Union in the Taiji Fishing Cooperative. Others came from private companies in Taiji such as Dolphin Base and World Dolphin Resort.
The latest statistics for dolphin exports (mainly from Taiji) between 2009-2011, reveals purchases from several new countries. China was still the biggest importer of dolphins with a staggering 117 dolphins purchased in 3 years (2009; 2010 and 2011). The Republic of Korea also imported 17, and the Philippines, four.
But several newcomers appeared at the table. Thailand imported 11 dolphins; Saudi Arabia – 4; Ukraine – 16; Egypt – 4; Republic of Georgia – 7; Tunisia – five. A total of 185 dolphins at a cost of 657, 643 (1,000 yen). This figure said Elsa, did not include the 39,529 (1,000 yen), paid by China and Vietnam for nine dolphins exported in Jan. 2012.
Meanwhile," the drive hunts of “gondou” in Taiji will officially continue until the end of April," said Hemmi. "Packages of dolphin meat are still on the shelf of supermarkets in Taiji," she added, "but the number of dolphins caught or sold alive is not officially reported yet, and it's difficult to get the accurate data at present. However, according to Wakayama prefecture, the number of dolphins caught or sold alive this season is 928 animals as of February 29, 2012."
Elsa continues to raise awareness in Japan and is currently embarking on a new quest, to protect wild dolphins around a small island that belongs to Tokyo. "It's an attempt for human beings to live together with wild dolphins. Its success has a big meaning," Hemmi said. [See: The Toshima Project. Where Dolphins are Revered in Japan].
Sakae Hemmi urges all dolphin lovers, "to continue to be against dolphin drives in a lawful, peaceful, and non-violent way." Elsa needs "attractive speakers/persuaders to Japan, and if possible, financial aid for Elsa and its colleagues," she added. As the conservation group continues its attempt to change hearts and minds within Japan, visit Elsa Nature Conservancy to pledge support.
Sakae Hemmi is a writer who has published over 20 books, many about animals or the relationship between animals and human beings. Three of them achieved special recommendation for school children from the Japan Library Association.
Note: The video above: "First Contact", appears courtesy of the Dolphin Dance Project and features an interview with Kayoko Sawamura after she had just encountered wild dolphins for the first time.
Projects such as this are a bridge for communication between two diverse cultures. "As with all our work," said the project, "we offer this video in the hope that a visceral experience of who dolphins are will naturally elicit concern for their well being and the health of their environment."
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