Like many others who watched the Academy Awards last night, I was very disturbed by the clips I saw from The Cove, the film that won in the Best Documentary category. The Cove portrays the dolphin hunt that takes place each year near the small Japanese fishing village of Taiji. There hunters herd more than a thousand dolphins into a small cove, where they spear them from small boats. The most disturbing clip was an aerial view of the cove after the slaughter: the water was blood red.
Taiji’s inhabitants are apparently up in arms now over the film. According to a CBC report I read today, Taiji’s mayor has now released a statement defending the hunt. “There are different food traditions within Japan and around the world,” he notes. “It is important to respect and understand regional food cultures, which are based on traditions with long histories.”
I will come back in a moment to the ethics of this hunt. But the mayor does make a valid point. Dolphin hunting does indeed have a very long history along the rim of the Pacific Ocean. Archaeological evidence shows that dolphins were a major food source along the coast of California–not far from where the Oscars were handed out last night–as early as 9000 years ago.
Mark Raab, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Riverside, and his colleagues excavated a trove of dolphin bones at a site on San Clemente Island, 60 miles off the California coast. As it happened, I was there at Eel Point with the crew when they dug a small portion of the site, and I was amazed as I watched faunal expert Judy Porcasi sort through the recovered bone fragments. Porcasi kept shaking her head as she picked out something familiar in a screen. “Dolphin,” she said. “Dolphin. Dolphin.”
Her later analysis showed that a whopping 38 percent of the identifiable mammal bones from the dig belonged to dolphins. And though the intensity of the hunt varied over time, the people of Eel Point hunted dolphins from 7000 B.C. right up to A.D 1400. And this raises an important question. How did they manage kill so many dolphins? The excavations did not turn up any sign of a harpoon.
In search of clues, Porcasi and Raab began scouring accounts of how traditional cultures elsewhere around the Pacific hunted dolphins. From this they discovered that human hunters had long employed a simple but deadly technique.
In the Solomon Islands, for example, hunters struck stones together underwater: this created a terrible cacophony of sound that essentially “jammed” the animals’ echo-location, a sonarlike system that guides them underwater. With this system down, the animals became so disoriented that hunters easily drove them into shallow water, where they could then be “captured by hand,” says Raab.
Raab now argues that the first migrants to Eel Point likely brought this clever hunting technique with them from Asia. This strikes me as a very plausible argument, and it suggests that humans have been hunting dolphins in places like Japan for more than 11,500 years.
But does this make the practice morally acceptable today? I don’t think it does and here’s why. Japanese villagers do not need dolphin meat to survive, as hunters did in times past. And there is no suggestion that hunting these marine mammals plays an essential part of their culture. Last, but definitely not least, I think we know much more about dolphins today than hunters did in the past, because we are able to observe their underwater behavior in ways that earlier people could not.
On the strength of these observations, we now know how very intelligent dolphins are. They have recognizable personalities, can think about the future, are capable of working together cooperatively, and are excellent problem-solvers. In other words, dolphins are a lot like us, and so some scientists have recently proposed they should be treated as “non-human persons.”
I do not support the dolphin hunt in Taiji, Japan. I hope that the international community can now pressure the Japanese government to bring this terrible slaughter to an end.