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article imageOp-Ed: Groups chide IMATA over statement on the Taiji dolphin drives Special

By Elizabeth Batt     Oct 3, 2013 in Environment
Chicago - The International Marine Animal Trainers Association (IMATA) annual conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, could have been the perfect opportunity for the organization to condemn the Taiji dolphin drives. Instead say critics, IMATA appeared to endorse them.
The conference which was held last Sept. at the prestigious Mirage hotel, was an opportunity for a bevy of international trainers who work with captive marine mammals, to advance their knowledge across the board. IMATA even includes trainers from Japanese facilities who source their dolphins from the controversial dolphin drives in Japan.
About the dolphin drives
The Taiji dolphin drives which were featured in the Academy Award-winning documentary: The Cove, occur annually between September and March but have even run into April for pilot whales. Hundreds of wild dolphins are hunted and driven to exhaustion until captured. These dolphins are either slaughtered for meat or consigned to captivity and sold to aquariums worldwide.
Many of the dolphins are purchased by facilities in Japan. Awashima Marine Park, Enoshima Aquarium Marineland, Kamogawa Sea World; Niigata City Aquarium and Shimonoseki Marine Science Museum are just a few of the aquariums that source some, or all of their dolphins, from the drive hunts.
IMATA therefore boasts the perfect platform to begin a conversation and engage its trainers directly in advocating change for dolphins captured in the drives. Instead, the organization appears to offer conflicting statements to the public. An issue that has irked cetacean conservation groups for decades.
IMATA's Code of Ethics
The organization's Code of Ethics clearly states that "trainers and other personnel," are "ultimately responsible," to "the communities in which they live and work ... the public which they serve and ... the animals in their care." Furthermore, IMATA requests that members:
Maintain the fortitude and insight necessary to demonstrate a sense of responsibility, beyond reproach, within the principles of professionalism dictated by morality, logic, and knowledge."
The association concludes that all members will be held to the "highest standards of ethical conduct," and must exercise, "the highest levels of respect and humaneness for all animals."
Let's flip the page.
IMATA has been facing increasing pressure from cetacean advocates for its refusal to condemn Taiji dolphin trainers who attend captures in the cove to hand-select dolphins for captivity. It is a process which befuddles the mind.
The selection process
Trainers are ferried to the cove by the fishermen who drive these dolphins in. If a large pod has been captured, the animals are separated into smaller groups with each group systematically driven towards the beach. Imagine a carousel of dolphins paraded before the trainers.
As trainers point to prize specimens (often young, predominantly female), the dolphin in question is wrestled into a sling and ferried around the corner to holding pens located in Taiji harbor. The unwanted dolphins are then driven off to another holding area, and another group is pushed forward.
This continues until the entire pod has been sifted through and sorted, and while fishermen have perfected the procedure, the process does nothing to prevent the mass panic of dolphins. Dolphins become ensnared in nets and drown, are sliced open by passing boat motors or simply sucuumb to stress and expire.
Those dolphins not chosen for captivity are then driven to the beach and slaughtered. Considering this close connection between fishermen, trainers and the locations in which they operate, the association of one to the other is clear to many who advocate for the welfare of dolphins. But it is far less so to IMATA.
IMATA's statement on the dolphin drives
In its FAQ section about the dolphin drives on its website, IMATA says it "strongly opposes the mass slaughter of whales and dolphins that occur in drive fisheries." Yet when asked "if any animal trainer can join IMATA, even if they care for and train animals collected from a drive fishery?", IMATA responds:
Yes. IMATA is committed to accepting into its membership any animal trainer interested in progressive learning who promotes improved animal care.
The confliction appears to continue in a new statement issued last month by the association. Published at, the association wrote:
IMATA is not an advocacy group ... a caregiver is welcomed by IMATA even if s/he participates in the selection and collection of live animals on the premise that those animals will benefit as s/he is exposed to the most current best practices in animal care and training. This helps to ensure the well-being of animals living in zoological settings around the world.
The reasoning offered in this statement is in direct contrast to its own code of ethics. IMATA endorses trainers participating in the drive selection because it believes the animals being collected will benefit during the selection process, provided those trainers are IMATA members exposed to current best practices.
What if those dolphins were not driven in at all? Would that not better serve them?
For Courtney Vail, the Campaign Manager for Whale and Dolphin Conservation, IMATA's statement she said, is "consistent with how the industry views their participation in the drive hunts."
Vail told Digital Journal that collectively, IMATA and other industry orgs:
Exempt their activities from the ugliness of the round-up, capture, and trade in dolphins as if it has nothing to do with how these animals end up in their custody. Rather than being complicit in fueling and underwriting the hunts, they are posing as rescuers who are saving the dolphins from slaughter and providing them with love and care.
In reality, the Campaign Manager said, "nothing could be further from the truth," and "this 'rescue rationale' is the same false narrative that the captivity industry has been using since they became intimately connected to sourcing from the hunts in the early 1980s."
But the reasoning that IMATA gives, is paper thin. Vail explained:
There is no way that IMATA can distance itself from the cruel methods utilized in capturing dolphins from the wild, in Taiji or elsewhere, understanding that these captures ultimately devastate the family groups left behind, and consign countless others to their death as their activities support the international trade in dolphins for their programs. There is absolutely no way to sanitize or rationalize their complicity in the slaughter occurring in Taiji, and their perpetuation of devastating acquisition practices elsewhere.
Jeffrey Ventre, a former SeaWorld trainer who is now a medical doctor and one of the founders of Voice of the Orcas added that IMATA's statement was, "outrageous, but not unexpected." Ventre added that the organization's policy simply, "forgives trainers or potential trainers for participating in the brutal drive fisheries, such as in Taiji."
Ventre also explained that when he worked at SeaWorld:
All five of the false killer whales (now deceased) at Whale & Dolphin stadium, Hana, Yaki, Zori, Teri, and Suki, all had Japanese names because they were harvested from there.
The former trainer and Blackfish documentary star, labeled IMATA's statement as, "a utilitarian gesture based on convenience" when in actuality he added, "these fisheries ARE The Industry and captivity can't continue without a fresh supply of small whales and dolphins."
Describing Taiji as "the flip side of SeaWorld," Ventre concluded that IMATA's policy merely "helps us to understand the inter-connection between The Cove and Blackfish. They're opposite sides of the same cycle," he said, "both driven by dollars, euros and yen."
Strange study included at IMATA's Vegas Conference
To extend IMATA a little credit, at this year's conference, they did include a powerpoint presentation of a review on the live captures of dolphins in Taiji. It wasn't entirely impartial as it was conducted by the captive marine facility Ocean Park in Hong Kong.
Still, a blurb about the review also appeared on p.62 of IMATA's Proceeding's, available for perusal at
The review said it had examined the activities of the Taiji dolphin drive fishery between the years 2004 and 2011. "The live extraction of 599 Common bottlenose dolphins was the highest for all species, representing 70.4 % of all live extractions," it said.
Oddly for a review, the authors cited an anonymous statement made in 2013 that read, "live cetaceans sold to Japanese and international zoological facilities typically generate higher revenue per dolphin than the sale." As such, the authors queried concerns over whether the demand for animals by captive facilities could be promoting the continuance of the Taiji dolphin drives.
It eventually concluded:
The overall extraction of live cetaceans from the Taiji-cho drive fishery was around 8% and while the aggregate of those sales contributed to the local economy, they have not influenced the establishment of annual catch limits and quotas for species targeted for food.
Unfortunately, even though readily available, what was not included in the review was the dolphin drive numbers for the 2012-13 drive season. Before the season had even concluded, 219 marine mammals had been seized for sale, 18 percent of the total take to date. This figure was more than double those given in 2009, more than double the 7.5 percent in 2010/11, and triple the six percent observed the year before.
Furthermore, considering Ocean's Park's eight percent statistic was based over eight seasons of dolphin drives, and not annual figures, more accurate trends were harder to discern.
"Unfortunately," Vail said about IMATA and the review, "they point to the continuing association (and increasing numbers taken into captivity) as not problematic because the government quotas have not gone up (meaning, their association with the hunts have not resulted in more animals being killed)." Yet, concluded Vail, "they have no concern whether their association actually means quotas are not going down."
Ironically, in endorsing trainers that work directly at the cove, the US-based IMATA organization whose head offices are in Chicago, are in direct opposition to the federal government's Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The methods of capture as dictated by the MMPA would be considered inhumane and not subject to permit approval. Yet in Japan, this method of corralling, giving chase, and the selection process that sees younger animals separated from mothers, is standard practice.
For those still unclear over IMATA's role as an organization, there is one statement that clearly shows where their loyalties lie:
Specifically, IMATA recognizes its role and responsibilities to the continued existence of oceanaria, aquaria, and laboratories housing marine mammals.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about International Marine Animal Trainers Association, IMATA, taiji dolphin drives, taiji japan, code of ethics
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