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Unfazed by ‘The Cove,’ Taiji Fishermen Ready for Dolphin Hunt

Visitors look at dolphins
Visitors look at dolphins in a pool at the Taiji Whale Museum in Taiji Town, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan. Photographer: Yuzuru Yoshikawa/Bloomberg

Fishermen in Taiji, whose annual dolphin slaughter was depicted in the Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove,” say they will resume the hunt next week because the 400-year-old tradition is the foundation of their industry.

“We have no intention to stop hunting dolphins,” Miyato Sugimori, administrative chief of the Taiji Town Fisheries Association, said in an Aug. 25 interview. “Our young fishermen can’t continue to live in this town without the hunt.”

Of Japan’s annual quota of 20,000 dolphins, about 1,500 are killed or sold to aquariums by fishermen in the town in Wakayama prefecture, south of Osaka. Taiji’s practice of “oikomi,” a method of hunting in which dolphins are herded into a bay for slaughter, drew worldwide criticism after the documentary was released.

“It’s a horrific way to kill them,” said Sakae Hemmi, a spokeswoman for Elsa Nature Conservancy, a Japanese environmental protection group. “Even if they let them go, the structure of the dolphins’ group is disrupted.”

According to the Japan Fisheries Agency, Taiji is the only place in Japan that practices “oikomi.” After herding the dolphins into the bay, the fishermen impale them with harpoons.

Driving a spear into the dolphin’s brain can kill the mammal in as little as two seconds and is the most humane way to conduct the slaughter, said Sugimori, who is seen in “The Cove” observing the filmmakers. Sugimori, 59, said the hunt is needed to make the local fishing industry viable.

“If we relied solely on other forms of fishing, our annual income would be about 2 million yen ($24,000), which is not enough to live on,” said Sugimori. About 6 percent of the town’s population is involved in fisheries, he said.

Cows, Kangaroos

Japan exported 56 live dolphins to countries including China, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey in 2008, receiving an average of 5.2 million yen per dolphin, according to Elsa Nature Conservancy, which cited Ministry of Finance statistics. Dolphin meat sells for about 1,000 yen a kilogram in Taiji, Sugimori said. The lowest grade of tuna sold in a local supermarket costs three times as much.

“Westerners eat cows, Australians eat kangaroos,” Sugimori said. “Japan, including Taiji, is surrounded by ocean, so we eat things from the sea which include fish, whales and dolphins. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Sugimori said if dolphin hunting was banned, young people may choose office jobs that pay more rather than join his association, which has an average age of 68. The association filed for bankruptcy and was restructured in February 2007, according to Tokyo Shoko Research.

‘Mental Capacity’

Alex Sarkissian, 17, a Canadian student who was visiting the Taiji Whale Museum, said he didn’t know dolphin hunting was a Japanese tradition.

“I like dolphins, and I don’t see why they would slaughter them,” he said. “I can’t compare dolphins and cows. They’re not on the same level of mental capacity.”

The cove depicted in the documentary can be reached by swimming for 10 minutes from Kujirahama, or “whale beach.” Surrounded by walls of rocks and trees, the 20-meter shoreline is littered with empty drink bottles and fishing rope. A security camera stands guard atop a metal pole.

Taiji’s mayor, Kazutaka Sangen, said dolphins remain an important resource for the town of 3,500 people. The “oikomi” hunt lasts from September to February.

“There are no other industries here. We can’t harvest rice or vegetables and there’s very little fresh water,” said Sangen, 62. “If we couldn’t hunt dolphins and whales, this town would have died out a long time ago.”

‘Staged Scenes’

Sangen said he gives a “zero” to “The Cove” because it wasn’t factual. He said the filmmakers staged certain scenes and deliberately provoked confrontations with fishermen to create entertaining footage.

Asked about the filming, Louie Psihoyos, the documentary’s director, said no parts of “The Cove” were staged.

“We spent two days of negotiations with the mayor’s office in order to get their side of the story,” Psihoyos wrote today in an email. “They decided not to cooperate because they feared any exposure of what was going on would compromise their business.”

“The Cove” began limited release in Japan in July and had lower-than-expected box office sales, according to Takeshi Kato, president of Unplugged Inc., the Japanese distributor.

Atsushi Matsumura, manager of the Seventh Art Theater, a cinema in Osaka that screened the film for six weeks, said about 5,000 people came to see it.

“As a documentary, I thought it was second rate,” said Matsumura. The cinema received protest letters and phone calls prior to screening the film, he said.

“We screened ‘The Cove’ because we wanted audiences to watch it and decide for themselves.”

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