For some, these two polar opposites serve to show just how wide the divide really is between distinct cultures. But there is one common denominator that is often overlooked, money.
In Taiji, Japan, hundreds of dolphins are captured or killed every year in the Cove, a natural inlet that serves as ground zero for one of the most brutal cetacean massacres on the planet. Defenders of the hunt justify its existence with the use of key buzz words such as "tradition" and "sustenance", and to disagree with the nature of the practice is seen as a personal attack on the country of Japan and its citizens.
But actions always speak louder than words. Now midway through the six month dolphin hunt season, the tradition of Taiji as a whaling town has transitioned into something far less honorable. It is not tradition, culture or a need for food that prompts these drives, but cold, hard cash.
Reality of the dolphin drives
Earlier this year, I interviewed
Sakae Hemmi of Elsa Nature Conservancy, a group dedicated to ending the drives from within the country. Through education and raising awareness about the toxicity of dolphin meat, Elsa tackles the issues through education. Here are some key points that Hemmi shared with me during the interview:
Regular dolphin drive hunts date back only 43 years to 1969.
Fishermen in Taiji don't want to give up their special privilege to hunt dolphins because they get profits.
Currently only 8.5% of the people in the town of Taiji are employed in the fisheries and only about 100 people at the most depend on whaling or whaling-related activities for their livelihood. Historical records and demographic data do not support the contention that "Taiji is a ‘Whaling Town’ that cannot survive without whaling.
The dolphin drive is an economic effort by a small town for profit rather than "traditional culture.
Hemmi also acknowledged that the consumption of dolphin meat was dropping because of meat contamination. Yet the hunts continue, why?
Facts about this season
According to online marine mammal inventory Ceta-Base.com, Taiji has an established quota of 2,089 total animals from seven species for 2012/13 season. Ceta-Base writes
Since the start of the season on September 1st, 2012 a total of 824 dolphins from four species have been driven into the cove in Taiji, Japan. Of this total 391 were killed, 286 were released ... 145 were live-capture. Species captured, sold & killed include: Bottlenose Dolphins (T. gilli), Risso's Dolphins (G. griseus), Short-finned Pilot Whale (G. macrorhynchus) and Striped Dolphins (S. coeruleoalba).
It's important to note the figures here: 391 killed; 286 released; 145 live-capture.
If there is a demand for dolphin meat purely as sustenance, then why have 286 dolphins been released?
Look at the last figure, 145 live-captures. When coupled with Hemmi's assessment, it becomes more obvious that the drives continue for profit. If further proof is needed, look at the species killed versus captured. The hardest hit dolphins slaughter-wise this year, are from three species: pilot whales; Risso's dolphins and striped dolphins.
Of 291 pilot whales driven into the Cove, only two were taken for captivity; 141 were killed and 148 were released. Of 110 Risso's dolphins, 97 were killed, nine were live-captured and four were released. Finally, of 124 striped dolphins, all but two were killed.
None of the above-mentioned species are 'money dolphins'. Hence, there is little demand from dolphinariums for them. In the case of striped dolphins specifically, a low survival rate in captivity means the industry is hesitant to part with its cash for a cetacean with a low survivability factor. These three species then are inevitably slaughtered, but dolphin meat is less financially viable than a live, trained dolphin.
Money dolphins versus meat prices
The money dolphins for Taiji, are the bottlenose dolphins or the 'Flippers' of the cetacean world. So far this season alone, 299 bottlenose dolphins have been captured in the Cove. Thirty-three were killed, 132 were live-captured and a further 134 were released.
On Dec. 11, a huge pod of bottlenose dolphins
were driven into the Cove and held over several days. Systematically, as reported by Sea Shepherd Cove Guardians
, the pod was raided of its youngest and prettiest dolphins.
In total, 101 juveniles and young dolphins were taken captive (most of the young in the pod), twenty-two animals were slaughtered and around 80 starving, injured dolphins, were finally released back to the ocean.
According to JapanFocus.org
, dolphin meat isn't worth very much. A local wholesaler Mizutani Ikuo, said that the meat "sells for about 2,000 yen (about US$16) a kilo, cheaper than beef."
Compare that to trained dolphins sold to Saudi Arabia recently. This screenshot
captured by Sayaka Nakamura is from the Japanese Customs database, and lists seven cetaceans transported from Taiji.
Six of the dolphins were exported to Saudi Arabia, one cetacean was sent to Hong Kong in October 2012. Nakamura wrote:
Cetaceans exported to Saudi Arabia were priced at 3.5 million yen ($43,750) each, which is average price for dolphins sold abroad from Taiji (untrained dolphins are sold for 800,000 yen ($10,000) by Taiji fishermen).
At almost $44,000 for a trained bottlenose dolphin, the haul of 101 juveniles this month will net Isana Fisheries Union almost $4.5 million dollars. Let's compare that to profit earned by selling the meat.
The maximum weight for a bottlenose dolphin is on average around 1,400 pounds, roughly 640 kilograms. At the cost specified by Japan Focus (US$16 a kilo), the dolphin meat is worth a little over $10,000 (this is including the inedible parts of a dolphin, skeleton etc. so would actually be less). One trained dolphin: $43K, meat value: $10K. Really, it speaks for itself.
Saving a single dolphin
Let's now travel more than 6,000 miles from Taiji to Spain. In a sheltered bay in Almerimar, a single baby striped dolphin named Marcos
is being held in a sea pen and watched night and day by a local organization called PROMAR
Marcos was discovered alone close to the shoreline near Roquetas de Mar, and was clearly not in good health. For more than three months now, PROMAR has been rehabilitating the little dolphin in the hope that they can return him to his family. Recognizing the need for help with the little fella, PROMAR contacted one of the best, Ric O'Barry and his organization The Dolphin Project
O'Barry spent several weeks in Almerimar, Spain, consulting with PROMAR and helping their volunteers work with Marcos. With a deeper sea pen needed in a better location for Marcos, the Earth Island Institutes' Dolphin Project, gave a grant
to PROMAR to help them build the new pen.
Although Marcos' future remains uncertain and a reunion with his pod or his mother is further complicated by the fact that striped dolphins are pelagic, neither PROMAR, The Dolphin Project, nor the many thousands of dolphin lovers who support the juvenile dolphin, will ever give up on seeking the best possible outcome for him.
If there is a division between cultures it is only evident in the differences of cetacean perception. To the handful of fishermen who drive in the dolphins for six months of the year, these animals are fish. To many others, science tells us that cetaceans are intelligent, smart, and capable of great suffering.
But marine mammals don't just appear in tanks, they are caught, captured and sold, and as the world demands more animals for public entertainment, a small fraction of Taiji, along with its local government, supplies them. Experts have long believed that if the demand for live dolphins went away, the drives would cease to be financially viable.
Unfortunately, there is still a gaping divide in cetacean thinking that must be bridged. But accomplishing this is intensely difficult when it's already scaffolded by profit and demand.