Japanese dolphin hunting has garnered great controversy, but is it justified?
Article: Liam Fitz-Gerald – Contributor
Every year, the tiny village of Taiji, in southern Honshu, Japan, becomes the center of international controversy stemming from an annual dolphin hunt. Village fisherman use metal poles with long flanges at the end of them to scare dolphins, who rely on sound and acoustics to navigate in their aquatic environments, into a nearby cove. Some dolphins are sold into captivity by the fishermen, who profit from exporting dolphins to aquariums worldwide. For most of the dolphins that remain unsold, the fate is death.
An environmental organization called the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) told Metro UK recently that the dolphins are killed by having “metal rod[s] stabbed into their spinal cord[s], where they [are] left to bleed out, suffocate and die.” The organization further commented that the death is not instantaneous and the process can last up to half an hour. The SSCS has pointed out that 50 dolphins have been sold into captivity
The Taiji dolphin hunt has received increased attention and criticism in recent years after a 2009 Academy award winning documentary film called The Cove recounted an environmental organization’s successful infiltration of events at the village. Camera and sound equipment smuggled into the cove captured the dolphin hunt on film and showed it to audiences around the world. Conservation groups such as the aforementioned SSCS have protested the hunt, as well as celebrities like Yoko Ono, who fears that Japan’s reputation could be damaged by such a practice. High profile political figures like ambassadors Caroline Kennedy, of the United States, and Timothy Hitchens, of the United Kingdom, have taken to Twitter to condemn the practice. Furthermore, the recent film, Blackfish, highlighted life for Orcas in captivity has also added to the climate, with the film crew of that production calling on SeaWorld to denounce Taiji.
Japanese officials have regarded the protests against the dolphin hunt as biased and hypocritical. Indeed, the fisherman and several public officials have pointed out that Westerners have no problem killing and consuming cows, pigs, and chickens every year, while vehemently objecting to Japan’s cultural practices. Not only that, but dolphins are not classified as an endangered species and the prefecture of Wakayama, the site of Taiji, has quotas and regulations over how many can be killed yearly. The fishermen also claim that this is an indigenous tradition and their way of making a livelihood, which, due to the economic situation in Japan, is getting harder and harder to come by. Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister defended the practice, saying that the local economy prospers from it.
Still, the question is daunting due to how intelligent dolphins are perceived to be. Dolphins, which include several species like orcas and bottlenose, have been observed partaking in activities that highly intelligent animals would do, such as caring for their elderly. Some scientists have even advocated the notion that dolphins can recognize themselves and are thus self-aware although recently the scientific community has debated this assertion. However there remains the idea that they are intelligent, self-aware animals.
Several University of Regina professors shared their opinions on the Taiji cove dolphin hunt. Philip Charrier, a professor of history specializing in modern Japan, maintains that while it is right for violent and inhumane treatment of animals to be questioned, he says that Westerners are all too quick to claim the moral high ground and there should be serious consideration for other cultures and their points of view on animals.
“Cultures across the globe have different understandings to what extent animals can be thought of as human-like in relation to how they might feel and experience pain,” he said, emphasizing that Westerners should be careful before judging other societies and pointing out that animal abuse around the world is widespread. Charrier says at times the championing of animal rights can come at the cost of being too respectful to other cultures.
“[The perspective on dolphins] is a very modern Western perspective applied to practices that exist in quite a different cultural and historical context,” he said.
Charrier says that while many urbanized Japanese feel that the dolphin hunt “tarnishes [Japan’s] image abroad,” there is a real concern over the disappearance of local customs in Japan and nobody wants to take responsibility for abolishing such traditions.
Charrier points out that Westerners should not pretend that horrible things don’t occur in their own cultures. Indeed, whaling and dolphin hunts occur in the West as well, with the Faroe Islands of Denmark being one such place. In Canada, there has been controversy in recent years over the seal hunt, which has been condemned by animal rights activists but supported by the Canadian government as a form of cultural tradition.
Herbert Korte, a professor of philosophy at the University of Regina specializing in animal rights, isn’t as convinced by the notion of animal rights being balanced with cultural traditions.
“Legal and moral rights trump traditions, cultural and/or religious practices and institutions; and moral rights even trump legal rights. For example, child labour, female circumcision, various forms of subjugation of women (e.g., bride burning, honour killing) is justified in some countries on cultural and/or religious grounds, but is outlawed in most Western countries, because such practices constitute an egregious violation of human moral rights,” he said via email.
Korte added that an argument appealing to tradition and cultural practices is inadequate if non-human animals possess moral rights. Such a move would mean a re-evaluation of morality as it currently stands.
However, he upholds that people are inconsistent when it comes to standards for protecting animals.
“Pigs, for example, are more intelligent than cats and dogs, and they are very clean and social in their own natural habitats. We are horrified when we learn that some Asian restaurants eat cats and dogs, yet we eat bacon and ham, not giving it a second thought. We cherry pick the animals we love and care for. Animals such as sharks and, in some cases, wolves, are deemed unworthy of our love and respect.” Korte continued by highlighting that trapping is still “a legitimate and celebrated industry in North America.”
Mark Brigham, a professor of Biology, had similar conclusions, saying that the dolphin hunt produces such outrage because the animals are considered cute as opposed to pigs, which are considered “tasty.”
“It’s absolutely no different from the attention the east coast seal hunt has attracted. In any given year there are tens of thousands of baby seals killed,” he said, emphasizing that humans value animals based on their looks.
Brigham, who studies bat ecology and behavior, points out, “Most people think that bats are vermin and have no problem killing them.”
On balancing cultural traditions and conservation of animals, Brigham said the answer is not so straightforward.
“Just because something has been practiced historically, doesn’t mean from a conservation perspective that it’s okay. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but it doesn’t mean it’s okay. It needs to be evaluated,” he said, meaning that the specific situation matters for certain animal practices.
Still, Korte maintains that even if individuals are inconsistent by supporting greater protection for dolphins as opposed to other animals, it still is beneficial for them to speak out against such practices.
“I think it is appropriate for us to protest against the dolphin hunt in Japan and any other atrocities committed against animals on our planet, despite our own moral shortcomings with respect to how we treat animals. To be concerned about some animals but not others, while inconsistent, is clearly more desirable than not being concerned about any animals. At least there is some hope that people will eventually realize their inconsistency and as a consequence make some lifestyle changes.”