The small Japanese town has become infamous in recent years for its dolphin hunting practices, which U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy called “inhumane” earlier this year.
During the sixth-month hunting season, Taiji fishermen will separate dolphins from their migrating pods using underwater sound barriers. The fishermen will then herd and pen the animals into lagoons, where some will be selected and sold to marine water parks. According to the Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS), Taiji dolphins can go for upwards of $200,000.
The remaining dolphins are systematically slaughtered for their meat. About 2,700 are killed in Taiji’s lagoons every year; an annual 20,000 are killed in Japan overall.
OPS is the nonprofit organization that produced the Academy award-winning documentary The Cove (2009), which focused on the secrecy and brutality of Taiji’s hunting practices.
The town’s annual tradition has since received international and domestic scrutiny. On Sunday, Tokyo residents marched in protest of the hunt, saying it damages Japan’s reputation abroad.
But some Japanese find the criticism – and the documentary – offensive. They argue that the slaughter of cows, pigs and sheep occurs in much higher numbers in the West, and the Taiji dolphins are neither endangered nor being wasted.
However, BlueVoice.org reports that Japanese dolphin meat contains mercury concentrations that are well beyond any developed nation’s safety standard. The conservation organization tested residents of Taiji that regularly ate dolphin meat and found mercury levels of up to 18.9 parts per million. The Japanese Health Ministry’s advised level of mercury in humans is 0.4 ppm.
The fatty tissue of dolphins and whales have also been found to contain high levels of PCBs, a toxic chemical linked to endocrine disruption and cancer.