Skip to main content

How hunters slaughter dolphins in Japan

By Carl Safina
January 28, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Carl Safina: A "new" method is being used to kill dolphins in controversial hunt in Japan
  • He says the method prolongs the pain of the highly social animals
  • U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy tweeted her criticism of the dolphin hunt
  • Safina: Methods used on dolphins would not be allowed in slaughterhouses in Japan, elsewhere

Editor's note: This article contains graphic descriptions of animal killing. Carl Safina is a MacArthur Fellow, Pew Fellow and Guggenheim Fellow, a professor at Stony Brook University and founding president of Blue Ocean Institute. His books include "Song for the Blue Ocean," "The View From Lazy Point" and "A Sea in Flames." He is host of the 10-part series "Saving the Ocean," which can be seen free at PBS.org.

(CNN) -- Academic papers tend to be dull, but I just read one that disturbed me. "A Veterinary and Behavioral Analysis of Dolphin Killing Methods Currently Used in the 'Drive Hunt' in Taiji, Japan," was published last year in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science.

And as we'll see below, the "new" method of killing dolphins (intended to be an improvement on the old method) creates such terror and pain that it would be illegal to kill cows in this manner under Japanese law itself. The paper is viewable free online, but it's not for the faint-hearted.

A little background: Each year, people kill about 22,000 dolphins and porpoises in Japan's waters.

Carl Safina
Carl Safina

In a town called Taiji, every year they catch and kill several hundred bottlenose, striped, and Risso's dolphins, Dall's porpoises and pilot whales. (The Arctic's Faroe Islands also stages an annual pilot whale drive-slaughter for food, which has the side effect of providing the residents with high doses of mercury.)

Taiji got famous in the nervy Academy Award-winning film, "The Cove." The hunting season continues through March, activists have said.

Caroline Kennedy, the new U.S. ambassador to Japan, is among those critical of the hunt; she tweeted: "Deeply concerned by inhumaneness of drive hunt dolphin killing."

Japanese officials have defended the hunt as legal and traditional.

For some reason -- likely public relations -- officials in 2010 announced a "new killing method."

Until recently, hunters speared and stabbed the dolphins to death after driving them onto the shoreline.

Protesters march to the Japanese Embassy in Manila, Philippines, on September 2, 2013, to decry dolphin and small whales hunt in Taiji.
Protesters march to the Japanese Embassy in Manila, Philippines, on September 2, 2013, to decry dolphin and small whales hunt in Taiji.

The new method is supposed to reduce time-to-death. As such, it's bogus. On paper, the new method involves destroying the spinal cord with repeated insertion of a metal rod. Even on paper, the "new killing method" makes no attempt to damage the brain, which would at least end consciousness.

In practice, the hunters splash around through the bloody water wielding their knives among the fully conscious, thrashing, squealing dolphins who have been trapped in the shallows and are being executed among their family and friends. Meanwhile, the humans have a very hard time getting into the spine.

Several veterinarians and behavioral scientists who watched a covertly recorded video wrote, "This killing method . ... would not be tolerated or permitted in any regulated slaughterhouse process in the developed world."

That includes Japan, oddly enough.

Japanese prime minister responds to dolphin controversy

Japan's own slaughter guidelines for livestock require that the creature being killed must be made to lose consciousness and must be killed by methods "proven to minimize, as much as possible, any agony to the animal."

These guidelines define "agony" as pain, suffering, fear, anxiety or depression. But those livestock guidelines do not apply to whale and dolphin killing, which is governed by Japan's Fisheries Agency, which treats dolphins and whales as nothing more than seafood with blowholes.

The published Japanese description promotes this "new" method by saying it, "results in a shorter harvest time, and is thought to improve worker safety." (Faroe Islanders use a similar killing procedure.)

After the Japanese drivers scare the dolphins into the shallows, they corral them and tie them together in bunches by their tails, hitch them to small boats, and drag them backward to where they'll kill them. While being dragged, the dolphins have a hard time getting their heads above water to breathe, and some drown.

The killer is supposed to destroy the dolphin's spinal nerve by pushing a metal rod into the spine behind its head. But the nerve is encased in the spinal bones. Veterinarians and behaviorists who viewed a video noted that the first shove did not penetrate the spinal bone.

They describe, "the animal making vigorous movements during the insertion of the rod." The man "redirects the rod and repeatedly pushes it into the animal." At this time, "the rod makes first contact with the vertebral bones of the cervical (neck) vertebrae. The rod clearly requires very significant force to push further into the tissues at this time."

The hunter eventually withdraws the rod and inserts a wooden peg into the wound to prevent bleeding. This is part of the new method. Why prevent bleeding of a creature you are trying to kill? Because -- I'll quote the Japanese description so you don't think I'm making this up -- this "prevents pollution of the sea with blood."

Slaughterhouse-killing rules for livestock such as cattle require "rapid bleed out." But when killing a dolphin, the workers create a massive spinal wound, then plug it to prevent the bleeding that would at least speed loss of consciousness to the dolphin, whose sensing brain remains undamaged.

From this point, just to make a long and appallingly hideous story a little shorter for the sake of our comfort, the dolphin in the video who is benefiting from the new and improved killing method spends the next three and a half minutes thrashing, nodding its head rapidly, and opening and closing its mouth.

The men around it ignore it; they're busy doing the same thing to other dolphins. The entire process lasts many hours, sometimes days.

With some understatement, the veterinarians and behavior experts describing the video write, "the treatment of dolphins in the drive hunts sharply contradict current animal welfare standards employed in most modern and technologically advanced societies ... The systematic mistreatment of dolphins and whales, allowed and sanctioned by a highly developed country such as Japan, is in striking contrast to European Union, United States, and even existing Japanese [livestock] legislation."

They note that in 2006 Japan instituted an unofficial ban on invasive chimpanzee research.

They conclude by saying that there is, "no logical reason to accept a killing method that is clearly not carried out in accordance with fundamental and globally adopted principles on the commercial utilization, care, and treatment of animals."

Dolphin killers have their reasons.

They say it is "pest control," claiming -- as if in self-defense -- that dolphins eat too many fish; and they do it for meat to sell, and to sell live young dolphins to marine parks and swim-with-the-dolphin programs in Japan and other countries.

In a word, the usual reason: money. Not tradition.

Most people in Japan don't benefit, and no one would go hungry without dolphin and whale meat; in fact most people don't eat any.

But, officially, Japan reacts strongly to such assaults on its tradition and culture. Assaults, bear in mind, that come mainly in the form of trying to simply film or describe what is really happening, then politely asking them to stop it.

For such a thoroughly self-westernized country as Japan, with its baseball, jazz, tobacco, subways, global business and automakers, to object to criticism of its "culture" is odd.

To publicly stake a seemingly large proportion of their nation's cultural identity on slaughtering dolphins and whales while westernizing in almost every way seems, to me, strange. And, mainly, cruel. Let it end, for good.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Carl Safina.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT