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Junji Kurokawa/AP
Richard O'Barry and his son watch dolphins at an aquarium in Taiji, Japan.

With An Oscar for Best Documentary, Can “The Cove” Halt Japan’s Dolphin Slaughter?

March 08, 2010 12:21 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
A documentary revealing Japan's annual dolphin slaughter wins an Oscar for Best Documentary, drawing further attention to a practice both traditional and disturbing.

Oscar Win Could Increase Pressure on Japan to End Dolphin Hunt

With an Oscar win in the Best Documentary category, “The Cove” could bring renewed international pressure on Japan to end its practice of slaughtering dolphins for food.

Most of the 2,000 dolphins killed annually in the seaside Japanese town of Taiji are sold as meat, while a smaller number are sold to aquariums. But conservationists and animal rights activists are most angered by the slaughtering process.

“The Cove” depicts fishermen on small boats banging on poles to frighten the dolphins into a cove, where they are then killed with spears. Most of the footage had to be captured secretly, and its dramatic content has drawn an international outpouring of outrage. Filmmaker Louis Psihoyos explained the process for making the film to NPR in a pre-Oscar interview.

On Sept. 11, Taiji “temporarily suspended its hunt,” National Geographic News reported. Some of the dolphins already caught were to be sold to aquariums, but the other 100 dolphins captured in the season's first catch on Sept. 9 were released.

Japanese officials denied that the decision was related to international protests, but a Taiji fisheries association official speaking anonymously conceded that attention brought on by “The Cove” had factored into the move, National Geographic reported.

Opinion & Analysis: Should Taiji be targeted?

To capture their footage, “The Cove” filmmakers “used divers with sophisticated underwater equipment, aerial drones, as well as surveillance and military-style thermal cameras,” John M. Glionna reports for the Los Angeles Times.

Dolphin hunter Shuichi Matsumoto spoke with Gilonna, defending the town's right to block outsiders from seeing the cove, where generations of fishermen have hunted dolphins. “In the West, the places where you kill the cows and pigs are always off limits,” Matsumoto said.

The film's focus is Taiji, but 20,000 dolphins are hunted across Japan each year, leaving Taiji residents feeling unfairly targeted, according to Coco Masters of Time Magazine. “The Cove” also leaves out the Japanese tradition of reverence for animals that are killed for human use. As a result, some see the film as “another bout of foreign outrage at a practice that is legal, regulated and culturally acceptable in Japan,” Masters writes.

But the method of slaughter known as oikomi, in which dolphins are chased into shallow coves, trapped in nets and killed with a harpoon, is only practiced in Taiji. Opponents consider the process inhumane.

Background: Tradition of dolphin hunting

According to the BBC, "Dolphin and whale meat has been eaten for centuries in Taiji," and residents "resent being told by foreigners what they should eat." The job of a dolphin hunter has been glamorized in the small town, and is considered "one step up from being an ordinary fishermen," Yoshiro Kogai, a dolphin hunter, told the BBC.

Dolphin and whale meat is more expensive than any other fish in Japan, and dolphin is sometimes "sold fraudulently as whale," which is "eaten much more widely in Japan," a practice environmentalists say points to the lack of industry regulation.

Related Topic: Richard O'Barry and Save Japan Dolphins

In a review of "The Cove" for The New York Times, Jeannette Catsoulis describes much of the covert work required of the filmmakers, and the risks of treading too closely to Japanese dolphin hunters. Catsoulis also mentions Richard O'Barry, the dolphin trainer for the television series "Flipper," who appears in the film and has made dolphin conservation his life's work.

O'Barry is the campaign director for Save Japan Dolphins, an organization calling on citizens to help stop dolphin hunting in Taiji. Learn how you can take part in the Save Japan Dolphins campaign.

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