In defending the annual drive hunt near the town of Taiji, Japanese officials have repeatedly pointed out that the killing and capture of dolphins is legal and internationally condoned. In a press conference on Monday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters that dolphin fishing in Japan was being "carried out appropriately in accordance with the law." And, despite widespread media disapproval -- including condemnation from Caroline Kennedy, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, as well as the U.S. State Department -- the Japanese government has a point.
According to Kate Wilson of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), dolphins are not protected by the same global agreements that make commercial fishing of larger cetaceans illegal. "The IWC was originally created to 'manage whaling and the conservation of whales,'" Wilson explained in a recent email. "There is strong disagreement among some member governments on whether it is correct to interpret this remit as including small cetaceans, such as dolphins and porpoises. Some IWC members maintain that the IWC only has jurisdiction over the ‘great whale' species." Regardless, she says, "the commission has never regulated catches of small cetaceans and has no authority to do so, unless IWC members agree that this is within the remit of the organization."
If the IWC were to include dolphins and porpoises within its realm of oversight, they could fall under the protection of a 1986 commercial whaling moratorium, which establishes an indefinite pause on all commercial whaling stocks and is still in effect. Additionally, the IWC could potentially expand protections for dolphins by enacting a non-binding resolution similar to the 1986 moratorium, outlining specific guidelines for small cetacean fishing. This would require a majority vote of three-quarters of the commission's member nations.
"IWC members did reach agreement that the organization's Scientific Committee has a role in studying and advising on small cetaceans," Wilson said. "In recognition of the critically endangered status of some small cetacean species, and the need for international coordination, IWC members also agreed to manage a small cetacean conservation program, which now has projects working all over the world with some of the most at risk populations."
Although the commission is making valiant conservation efforts, there is still contention amongst member nations over the IWC's eligibility to manage dolphin fishing. Japan has been a particularly vocal opponent of several of the commission's small cetacean conservation efforts. And Japan has not attempted to hide its pro-whaling stance -- it carries as much weight in the IWC as any other member. Although the United States has the privilege of acting as the commission's depository -- and although the U.S. throws its support behind what conservation measures the IWC takes -- decisions fall to the entire voting body. The IWC is comprised of 87 countries, which count equally in all matters regardless of population, economic might, or the existence of a whaling industry.
It's unlikely, then, that the United States or any other IWC member could exert sufficient pressure alone to ban questionable whaling practices officially around the world. And, according to Hideshi Futori, an expert on Japanese-American relations, it's especially unlikely that a foreign power will be able to sway domestic laws in Japan. Outside influence -- through official channels or in the form of widespread media outrage -- might be especially unlikely to work for the Japanese government.
"I understand Ambassador Kennedy and US Government's comment on [Taiji] from the viewpoint of animal protectionism," Futori explained. "However, the Japanese government will not make a law or regulation to stop dolphin hunting just because of a tweet or loud international criticism." On the contrary, he says, Japan is likely to become more obstinate in its pro-fishing stance.
"The Japanese people have strong tendency to maintain and guard their own tradition and culture as an island country," Futori said. "My proposal is that we focus on either making international norms or regulations against dolphin fishing, or showing medical or scientific data to prevent eating dolphin."
Additionally, says Candace Crespi of the Oceanic Preservation Society, the global tide needs to turn against the capture of dolphins and other cetaceans for display at aquariums or theme parks. "The Taiji dolphin slaughters are fueled by the profits made supplying dolphins to aquariums and ‘swim-with' programs," Crespi told The Dodo. "The easiest thing to do to make a difference for the dolphins is to go see them in their natural habitat."
According to Crespi and Futori, ending the Japanese dolphin hunts comes down to changing attitudes. That change can come not necessarily from international pressure, but from a lack of it -- from reducing the demand for captive dolphins. Decreased demand can decrease the number of pods that are split up by small cetacean fishing. And as for reducing the demand for dolphin meat in Japan, Futori says a logical approach might work.
"Few Japanese have ever eaten dolphins, and the tradition of drive hunting continues only in a Taiji, which is a small local village," he said. "Many Japanese will not suffer actual damage or loss without the drive hunts, and there will not be any criticism against the government even if the fishing is prohibited. And although I think the Japanese people are becoming more confident in themselves against foreign pressure and criticism," Futori concluded, "the Japanese have a tendency to accept opinions from overseas -- reasonable opinions, that is."