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Dolphin Drive returns to Futo, Japan

Captured dolphins
Captured dolphins in a holding pen

It is "drive-hunt" season in Japan. The hunters take to the water armed with metal poles. When they find a pod of dolphins they surround it and bang the poles in the water. The clattering noise confuses the dolphins' sonar, and they thrash around in confusion as the hunters drive them towards the shore. Unlike harpooning, this method can pull in a hundred or so dolphins at a time. But death is slow. The animals are knifed and slashed until the water runs red. Still conscious, they are then hoisted on to trucks. But not all the men dragging dolphins from the water are fishermen. Some are from marine parks, here to choose their latest performers. They get first pick, while those not chosen are butchered for food. Although many of us have idealistic notions that marine parks in some way protect sea life, in Japan they are in direct alliance with the fishermen who kill it. It's a strange interdependence that the aquariums would rather we didn't know about.

The secret of Japan's dolphin supply is leaking out to the rest of the world. The marine parks are worried that, if the details become known, international pressure on the Japanese government might put an end to the business.


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Marine parks are behind the world's biggest slaughter of dolphins.

"It's the captivity industry that is driving [the killing] today," says Ric O'Barry. "The dolphinariums are paying more for the high-value dolphins. That money is what keeps this thing going." O'Barry says a live dolphin can sell for $30,000 (£16,200), while those caught for meat fetch as little as $300 (£160).

This means that the marine parks fuel the drive-hunts - and every dolphin-lover visiting a marine park in Japan is inadvertently propping up the trade for meat, too.

The dolphin hunters are dismissive about their relationship with the marine parks. "The main reason for the hunt," they say, "is for food, not to supply the aquariums."

The prices quoted they dismiss in gales of laughter. Almost every dolphinarium in Japan is reliant on the annual blood bath at Taiji and that of another town a little further up the coast, Futo. Here some dolphins are dragged, still alive, behind trucks, their skin ripping off on the tarmac. At the slaughterhouse, the men from the dolphinariums pick out the lucky ones who will live.

In 1999, after being denounced in the world press, the fishermen in Futo stopped hunting and killing dolphins. Now, five years later, they are starting again with the support of zoos, aquariums, and "swim with the dolphins" programs in Japan and abroad. There is a great risk that Futo will follow in the footsteps of Taiji, reopening its dolphin drives and becoming a supplier of dolphins for the dolphin captivity industry.

But, it's not only Japanese marine parks that source from the drive-hunts. Tim Desmond, an American who's a regular shopper in Taiji, chooses the best and then flies them to his marine park in the Philippines - Ocean Adventure - which is one of the most popular attractions in the country. Desmond is reluctant to talk, saying the animal rights activists have made him a pantomime villain.

It turns out that he and O'Barry are old adversaries. Desmond has the air of an excited academic, all hand gestures and impressive-sounding theories on the ethics of keeping animals in captivity.

Outside, his Taiji dolphins rip through the water as the children whoop and pop music blares from speakers. But here's the surprise: Desmond claims he's the conservationist, not the demonstrators trying to stop the drive-hunts. He says he's saving the dolphins from the hunters' knives. "Every animal had a life expectancy of less than one day when we acquired them," he says.

"These animals were either going to be taken alive or die." He argues that Taiji is the most environmentally friendly place to acquire dolphins. If he ordered them from elsewhere - Cuba for instance, which is a major supplier - the dolphins would be caught specifically for him: in other words, he would be guilty of interfering with the species. The drive-hunts, on the other hand, are a pre-existing situation. His dolphins, he says, are a bi-product of the catch.

But O'Barry says: "If Desmond was a conservationist, he would be there with a sign saying, 'Stop the killing'."

Edited from Paul Kenyon's 'Undercover World: the Dolphin Hunters'

Copyright © 2004 The Independent

Commentary by Captain Paul Watson (Sea Shepherd - Jan, 2017)

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