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Last Updated: Monday, 8 November, 2004, 00:54 GMT
Dining with the dolphin hunters

By Paul Kenyon
Director/producer/reporter, Dolphin Hunters

Most people deplore the mere thought of hunting and killing dolphins, but in Japan it is legal and, arguably, traditional. So, is the process known as drive hunting symbolic of a cultural gulf, or does it simply amount to mindless slaughter?

Drive fishermen
Few people outside Taiji know exactly how the dolphins are caught
The thin, dark slivers of meat were prepared in a fan shape, and had started bleeding in the high humidity.

This was the only bar in Taiji, a small town in southern Japan with a strong suspicion of outsiders.

The meal that faced me was raw dolphin.

The locals jab at it, and slurp it down with the local beer. It is one of their favourite foods, cheaper than whale, and more flavoursome.

It looks like tuna, but black. After some prodding, I swallowed a single piece... and won a little trust.

We had come here after an American marine mammal specialist with One Voice, Ric O'Barry, told us about the annual mass slaughter of dolphins in Japan.

It has been going on for 400 years and the process is called "drive hunting".

Tuesday, 9 November, 2004
1930 GMT on BBC Two (UK)
The fishermen surround a pod of dolphins at sea. They lower metal poles into the water and bang them with hammers.

The clattering noise carries through the water, and confuses the dolphins' sonar. In their panic, the dolphins are driven into shallow water. Then the killing begins.

There is little finesse about it. The water runs red, as the fishermen use knives and ropes to capture them and hoist their thrashing bodies onto the quayside.

From there, they are dragged, many still alive, to the slaughter house, chunks of flesh ripping from them onto the tarmac.

Hunters' logic

Dolphin hunter Akira Takeuchi
The fishermen were not the callous animal rights abusers I had been led to expect
Two days after arriving in Japan, I was in the dolphin hunters' co-operative in Taiji.

All they know of Westerners are the handful of protesters who turn up each year, trying to stop their hunt.

In a town of 500 fishermen, only 27 are allowed to catch dolphins. It is an elite club, membership of which is chosen by Masonic-style ritual.

"Even if you were the prime minister's son, you wouldn't necessarily get in," said one former mackerel fisherman, guzzling a plate of dolphin in The Whale Bar.

But, the dolphin hunters surprised me. They were not the callous animal rights abusers I had been led to expect.

They were dignified and philosophical about their trade.

They were also confused. Dolphins to them are just big fish to be treated like any other.

"You'd think nothing of slicing off a tuna's head while it was alive, so why the outcry over dolphins?" one of them said.

That night, in the dolphin bar, I showed them a BBC film about the latest research on dolphin intelligence.

Paul Kenyon shows research film
Taiji fishermen refuse to be swayed by "dolphin intelligence" research
I wanted to understand the cultural gulf dividing Japan and the rest of the world.

They sat in silence, watching bottle-nose dolphins master up to 60 words of sign language and demonstrate some pretty mind-blowing problem-solving skills. They were not impressed.

"They're just like dogs," said one. "You could teach dogs the same tricks; it doesn't mean they're clever."

International outrage

The dolphin hunting season began at the start of October.

As the fishermen prepared their boats, marine mammal specialist Ric O'Barry prepared his plans to stop them.

Ric O'Barry
Marine mammal specialist Ric O'Barry has dedicated his life to saving dolphins
Each year he flies from his home in Miami, and takes up residence in Taiji for six months.

He and his colleagues wake early in the morning, and shadow the fishermen, trying to film their activities.

The confrontations between the two sides can descend into scuffles. Mr O'Barry says he has been threatened with a knife. The fishermen deny it.

They wonder how we would feel if a group of Japanese turned up each year in the English countryside to picket a fox hunt.

Greater impact

Further up the coast, we discover the real cost of dolphin hunting, something that goes beyond the cultural arguments batted backwards and forwards by protesters and fishermen.

In the town of Futo, we meet a man who used to hunt dolphins, but stopped.

His reason? He says his colleagues were breaking the government-imposed quota; they were killing too many dolphins.

Izumi Ishii, former dolphin hunter
Izumi Ishii was a dolphin hunter for 30 years before he stopped
The quota is there to prevent damage to the species, but he said his colleagues cared little about that.

He now takes tourists out to observe dolphins in the wild. On our day-long trip, we did not see a single one.

Not only that, his colleagues have not carried out a drive hunt here for four years. They have not been able to find dolphins either.

It seems the fishermen have simply fished themselves out of a job. But, back in Taiji, the hunt is going ahead this year as it has done for the last four centuries.

The fishermen say they need it to survive. It is the only business they know.

The activists trying to stop them are likely to be exclusively outsiders.

That is not necessarily because the Japanese support the trade. During the three weeks we were there, we found no one outside the dolphin hunting towns who even knew that dolphins were eaten.

So, perhaps the challenge is not to change minds, but to inform them.

Dolphin Hunters was broadcast on Tuesday, 9 November, 2004, in the UK on BBC Two at 1930 GMT.

Dolphin Hunters
03 Nov 04 |  This World
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05 Nov 04 |  This World

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