The gruesome dolphin hunts in Japan are one of the most publicised incidents of animal cruelty in the world, condemned by everyone from Pamela Anderson to US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy. Now, a global legal action is bringing attention to an overlooked aspect of these hunts – their devastating conservation impact.
Last month, animal welfare NGO Australia for Dolphins launched legal action in Switzerland against the world's peak zoo body, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). The lawsuit alleges that WAZA is misleading the public by claiming to be 'united for conservation', while at the same time extending membership to organisations involved in the ecologically unsustainable Japanese dolphin hunts.
Southern Ocean whaling is a conservation issue that makes headlines each year, and the Australian government even conducted a groundbreaking legal action to stop Antarctic whaling in the International Court of Justice. But many do not realise that 15 times more whales are killed each year in coastal Japanese hunts than are killed annually in Antarctica.
To the frustration of anti-whaling countries, pro-whaling nations reject the International Whaling Commission's jurisdiction over small whales (dolphins, porpoises and pilot whales). The consequence is that, unlike large whales such as humpbacks, small whales are not afforded the protection of the IWC's 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling. Consequently, small whales continue to be commercially hunted in their tens of thousands each year in Japan and other countries.
In 2014, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) published a damning report exposing the conservation impact of the hunts off Japan's coast. According to the study, over a million small whales have been killed in direct hunts in Japanese coastal waters in the past 70 years. The EIA concludes that, for eight of the nine species targeted, catch limits are set at unsustainable levels, threatening some populations with extinction.
The EIA joins a chorus of concern from the world's top conservation bodies. As far back as 1982, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) voiced its fear about the overhunting of striped dolphins, the main species targeted in the hunts. A decade later, the IWC's Scientific Committee "strongly advised" the Government of Japan to establish "an interim halt in all direct catches of striped dolphins." The IUCN notes that "striped dolphins have been completely or nearly eliminated from some areas of past occurrence." It also warns that at least one form of rare pilot whale hunted off Japan is now "depleted."
The main purpose of the notorious hunts off the town of Taiji is to capture live dolphins and pilot whales for sale to aquariums. Each year, over 1,000 dolphins and whales are herded by powerboats into the shallows of Taiji's cove. Around 150 are captured live and sold to aquariums around the world, mostly in Japan, China and the Middle East. The live dolphin trade is a multimillion dollar industry, with trained dolphins selling for up to $100,000 each. The remainder are usually slaughtered as by-product and sold cheaply for meat or dog food.
WAZA publically condemns the hunts as "inhumane". However, several of WAZA's own members are involved in the hunts. These include the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA), a regional member of WAZA containing over 30 aquariums that purchase from the hunts. It is estimated that WAZA network aquariums account for up to 40% of total demand for live dolphins captured in Taiji.
While the slaughters conducted in Taiji are largely responsible for the conservation damage, the aquarium takes also play a significant part. The capture of cetaceans through drive hunts, which involves intensive harassment of the animals, not only removes individuals from populations, but can cause extreme injuries or death to other members of the pod released back into the ocean. The marine protection organisation Whale Dolphin Conservation (WDC) has noted that, because aquariums prefer young fertile females, the captures of individuals can upset populations' breeding patterns. They also leave nursing calves without their mothers, and with little chance of survival.
With legal action launched in Geneva, the world's eyes are now on WAZA. To date, WAZA has provided poor leadership to the world aquarium community on the dolphin hunting issue. While WAZA condemns the slaughters, it has not opposed the aquarium captures themselves or spoken out about the ecological damage they cause. Indeed, on the contrary, in 2009 WAZA negotiated an agreement – "the Dolphin Management Protocol" – which allows its Japanese member's aquaria to take dolphins captured in Taiji.
As the voice of the world zoo and aquarium community, WAZA has the opportunity to speak out against these captures, and require that its members stop participating in them. This would be a significant step towards stopping the world's largest dolphin trade, and ending the hunts before there are no dolphins and whales left in Japan to protect.