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
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1411 GMT (2211 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT