A coalition of marine scientists has launched a campaign to halt Japan's annual "dolphin drive," in which thousands of bottlenose dolphins are herded into shallow coves to be slaughtered with knives and clubs.
The government-sanctioned event, which extends through the fall and winter, has been under fire for years from environmental and animal rights activists.
But in a potentially influential escalation of that battle, mainstream scientists and administrators of zoos and aquariums -- some of whom have been criticized for buying surviving dolphins for use in their shows -- have united to condemn the practice.
The campaign pits the emerging science of animal intelligence against a centuries-old cultural tradition.
In an online statement being released today, the organizers -- including many of the world's leading dolphin scientists and the man who trained the television star Flipper -- say the hunt is nothing less than a ritual massacre of creatures that, according to a growing body of research, are not just intelligent but sophisticatedly self-aware.
The statement calls for the Japanese government to stop issuing permits allowing the hunt and for a halt to the purchase of dolphins caught in the drive. It also aims to get 1 million people to sign an online petition to the government.
Diana Reiss, director of the marine mammal research program at the New York Aquarium's Osborn Laboratories of Marine Science, said in a statement that the hunt is "a brutal and inhumane practice that violates all standards for animal welfare."
With co-worker Lori Marino of Emory University, Reiss showed five years ago that dolphins can recognize themselves in a mirror, an aspect of cognitive complexity that previously had been documented only in humans and chimpanzees.
‘Kind of our cultural activity’
Takumi Fukuda, the fisheries attache at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, defended the event as a centuries-old national tradition.
"It is kind of our cultural activity," he said. "We think it is important."
Fukuda said the government has already limited the practice to economic development zones, where fishermen are struggling to get by. And he said the government issues permits for only the number of animals that can safely be culled without threatening the species' survival.
This year 21,000 dolphins can be killed, Fukuda said, of which 15,000 or 16,000 have already been killed.
Although little discussed within Japan, the dolphin drive has gained international notoriety, especially as opponents have secretly filmed the event. Fishermen use nets and noise to herd hundreds of dolphins, pilot whales and other marine mammals into shallow waters, then kill the animals according to local traditions.
Most fishermen use knives to cause them to bleed to death, turning the waters red.
Sometimes live dolphins are hoisted on ropes tied around their tail fins, said Paul Boyle, a former director of the New York Aquarium and now chief executive of the Ocean Project, an umbrella organization for more than 800 institutions worldwide working to increase awareness of oceanic issues through collaborations with zoos and museums.
Dolphins are essentially weightless in water but weigh as much as 800 pounds on land, Boyle said. When they are hung, their backbones, which resemble human spines, are wrenched apart.
"It must be excruciatingly painful," Boyle said, noting that humans complain bitterly when experiencing pain from a ruptured disc in the spine. "When we show people video from past events, every person has the same response. They say it is the most inhumane thing they have ever seen."
The hunt -- centered largely on the towns of Taiji and Futo -- has in recent years been visually obscured by the erection of white tents on floating platforms.
It is "quite natural . . . no one wants to expose the killing scene to the public, like no meat company wants to release pictures from the killing scene in their slaughterhouses," Fukuda said. "We should understand that all animal killing scenes contain certain cruelty."
The new move to use public pressure caps two years of talks between a committee of marine mammal experts and Japanese government officials. The scientists presented peer-reviewed scientific information about dolphin brain anatomy, intelligence, social behavior, ecology and physiology -- all of which ultimately proved pointless, said Reiss, who was involved in the negotiations.
Fate of the meat
Details, including the citizens petition and a statement from scientists, are being posted at http://www.actfordolphins.org.
Adding to the controversy is the fate of the meat obtained from the hunt. In years past, most was eaten in Japan. Opponents say dolphin is not popular among Japanese and the meat is mostly used for fertilizer or pet food, a claim Japanese officials deny.
Fukuda said the hunt is consistent with Japanese philosophy. "Our way of thinking is that marine resources should be used, based on a sustainable-use basis," he said.
He added that there is a growing awareness among fishermen of a need for more humane methods.
"We understand and think it is necessary to shorten the time until the dolphin dies, so we have been trying to shorten the times," he said.
But critics said there is no appropriate way to hunt animals as smart and complex as dolphins.
Hal Whitehead, who studies whale and dolphin social systems at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, said dolphins are among the few animals known to live in multicultural communities, in which groups of individuals that have been taught to do things -- such as catch prey -- in different ways live together.
"Whales and dolphins are at least as sophisticated as the nonhuman great apes," Whitehead said, noting that Japan has been a leader in gaining protections for monkeys and apes.
Because dolphins learn from one another, he said, major cullings can have a serious impact on surviving individuals' ability to persevere. "When you remove a bunch of animals, you remove not only them but the knowledge that they have."
The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which represents more than 12,000 zoos and aquariums globally, passed a resolution in 2004 prohibiting the procurement of cetaceans from dolphin drives. But a number of smaller enterprises, many of them in Asia, have reportedly continued to do so.