Sunday, November 3, 2013

This Porpoise Slaughter Is Seven Times Bigger Than the Cove’s, So Why Haven’t You Heard About It?

Iwate, Japan, is once again poised to commence the world’s largest cetacean slaughter, which dwarfs the much more famous one in Taiji.

A group of Dall's porpoises, identifiable by their characteristic black and white coloring. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Every year for the past decade, volunteers from around the world have made a pilgrimage of protest to Japan, home to the eight-month bloodbath of whale and dolphin slaughter in the cove at Taiji. That hunt began again this month, and all eyes are on the infamous inlet—now more than ever—thanks to the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove.

But even as activists, scientists and movie stars rail against the brutal massacre of highly social and sentient animals, few campaigners know that some 500 miles to the north, in Iwate Prefecture, an annual slaughter of a beautiful species called Dall’s porpoise has been taking place in numbers that dwarf anything found at the cove.

Operating somewhat under the radar of public opprobrium, Iwate has traditionally staged the largest cetacean hunt on the planet. That is, until the 2011 earthquake and tsunami eviscerated Iwate’s coastal towns and destroyed much of the porpoise-hunting fleet.

For a while, it looked as though the hunt was gone forever, perhaps the only silver lining in a dark cloud of devastation. But now TakePart can exclusively report that operations somehow managed to resume last season, though on a much smaller scale, with a few hundred porpoises taken.

This season, however, from November 2012 to April 2013, the boats were back in greater numbers, killing about 1,200 porpoises, according to Clare Perry of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which is based in London.
(Susan E. Adams/ Flickr)
Nobody knows if the Iwate numbers will rebound to pre-quake levels and once again outstrip Taiji’s death rate, but it’s possible. Before the cataclysm, in 2009-2010 for example, fishermen unseen off the coast hand-harpooned 9,129 Dall’s porpoises, seven times more than the 1,242 dolphins, pilot whales and false killer whales (all members of the dolphin family) driven into Taiji’s cove and butchered that same season.

In years past, when porpoise meat was used as a substitute for the more expensive whale meat, Iwate’s numbers neared the annual quota of 16,000 porpoises. In 1988, two years after the International Whaling Commission (IWC) stopped the killing of large whales, more than 40,000 Dall’s were dispatched.

 With adult males reaching nearly 500 pounds, Dall’s are the largest of the six species of porpoises, which are not to be confused with dolphins, though they often are. The porpoise family is closer to belugas, evolutionarily speaking, than, say, bottlenose dolphins. Dall’s porpoises, named after an American naturalist, have gray-to-black bodies with gleaming white stomachs and flanks that flash in the water as they frantically dart about. They look like young, hyperactive killer whales, which many people mistake them for.

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In addition to their lopsided death counts, another notable difference between Taiji and Iwate is that, in the latter, no animals are taken alive and sold for tremendous profit to aquariums and theme parks. Porpoises are not as trainable, sleek and acrobatic as dolphins, and relatively few have been put on display over the years.

It’s unlikely that Dall’s porpoises would survive in captivity anyway, says Dr. Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI). “Dall’s are open-water, fast swimmers who are fairly social for porpoises,” she says. “Their physical needs simply cannot be accommodated in captivity.” That may be one reason why this hunt has continued so quietly, for so long. There is no visible drama of parents being killed and calves being ripped from their mother’s side, destined for a tank somewhere.