Dolphin blood fills the waters of Taiji, Japan. In the morning, hours before dawn wakes the town, dolphin farmers sail off in their boats in search of these animals. The hunters scavenge the oceans, finding outlines of their prey in the black water. Once caught, the dolphins will meet one of two fates: eternal captivity in an aquarium, or death.
Taiji in Wakayama Prefecture is one of Japan’s dolphin hunting towns, made notorious by the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary The Cove. The film provoked an international outcry over the cruelty of the dolphin trade. Environmentalists say that some dolphins take up to 30 minutes to drown. In extreme distress, dolphins are capable of killing themselves, said Richard O’Barry, an animal rights activist featured in the documentary.
Before the coronavirus pandemic overwhelmed the world, international activists flew to this small seaside town of about 3,400 people to protest the dolphin trade. But as Japan closed its borders to foreigners, the only activist left standing is Ren Yabuki, director of Life Investigation Agency, an advocacy group against animal abuses.
Like the fishermen, Yabuki wakes at 3 a.m. every day. He packs not a harpoon but a tripod, determined to record every day of the 6-month hunting season. Yabuki reports when mother and child dolphins are killed, as well as how many and which breeds are hunted. By recording the fishermen’s actions, he hopes that he not only will save these creatures' lives, but will also “let the Japanese people know what’s going on here,” he told VICE World News.
This act of one, however, is under frequent scrutiny by the police and Taiji’s 200 residents involved in the whaling and dolphin industry. Police often question Yabuki and prevent him from recording. Residents who have made their living from the industry condemn his criticism.
Some historical records show that dolphin hunting goes back to the 17th century in Taiji. In the town, dolphin meat sukiyaki (hot pot) and deep-fried whale meat are common staples. Industry supporters claim its long tradition as a reason for continuing the hunt.
Hisato Ryono, a Taiji Town Council Member who does not support the trade of live dolphins, recognizes the industry’s cultural significance. “I respect the culture and don’t think it should be dismissed outright… I don’t get why people accept slaughtering cows but not dolphins,” he told VICE World News.
When in high demand, dolphin meat is profitable. But changing food habits, as well as concerns over high mercury levels in the meat, have dwindled sales. Now, 100 grams of dolphin can sell for 198 yen ($1.86).
In recent years, dolphin hunters have instead turned to the trade of live dolphins. Taiji’s fishermen are allowed to catch 1,749 dolphins or small whales during one hunting season. Hunters can make $48,000 per live dolphin, as opposed to the mere $480 when slaughtered. Some of these captured dolphins are sent to China, where 90 dolphins were purchased in 2018.
The pandemic has largely stopped the export of dolphins, a big financial blow to Taiji’s hunters. But Yabuki says he will not rest until killings have come to a complete stop.
Yabuki, who witnessed baby dolphins being killed, described how the killings are hard to take. “Seeing this nearly every day during hunting season, it keeps me up at night. I even have nightmares about it,” he said.
Though frustrated, Yabuki still wakes before sunrise day after day to save dolphins’ lives. “The only thing we can do is decide to not eat whale or dolphin meat anymore, and not to buy tickets for dolphin shows anymore. If we all boycott aquariums, then they can’t sustain the dolphin export business here in Taiji. If the demand stops, the killings and captures will too.”