In a move that is sure to infuriate animal rights crusaders, the Japanese town of Taiji, made infamous by the Academy Award-winning 2009 documentary The Cove, has announced a bizarre plan to open a marine park. It seems the locals behind the highly incendiary dolphin trade were not moved by the film.
Visitors to the park will be able to swim with dolphins in one section of the surrounding waters, while systematic culling of the same creatures continues in a bay nearby. Once they are hungry from kayaking and frolicking in the waters, park-goers will have the option of returning to the shore to eat whale and dolphin meat.
Far from representing an end to the practice, local official Masaki Wada said that the park is aimed at sustaining it. “We already use dolphins and small whales as a source of tourism in the cove where dolphin-hunting takes place,” Wada said. “In summer swimmers can enjoy watching the mammals that are released from a partitioned-off space. But we plan to do it on a larger scale.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
He continued, “This is part of Taiji's long-term plan of making the whole town a park, where you can enjoy watching marine mammals while tasting various marine products, including whale and dolphin meat.”
Perhaps this attitude should not surprise. Japan has a long history of bucking global maritime norms among advanced nations, especially when it comes to whaling in the Antarctic for “scientific research” (and meat), the controversy at Taiji, and the nation’s ties to the divisive shark fin trade. Even dogs across the archipelago were being fed whale meat treats at one point, until a media furor pressured the controversial pet food off the market.
Plans for the park in Taiji, a town in Japan’s scenic Wakayama prefecture, include a “whale safari park” encompassing some 28 hectares and formed by stretching a net across the entrance to Moriura Bay in the northwestern part of the town. The park is set to open within five years, according to officials. This section is distinct from Hatakejiri Bay, where some 1,277 dolphins were killed for their meat in 2012. The town claims it has a license to cull up to 2,026 this season, which began in September and runs through next August.
Defenders of the practice of whaling – which is used as an umbrella to include hunting other sea creatures like dolphins – say it has roots in Japanese whaling culture, which they claim goes back 400 years. However, skeptics of this cultural claim have suggested that these controversial oceanic activities are more a case of “invented tradition” meant to set Japan apart at the national bargaining table.
“This has become a touchstone issue for Japanese people who are sick and tired of being pushed around and told what to do by other countries like the United States,” Jeff Kingston, an academic expert on the contentious industry, told BBC. “If the media and a few leaders tell them that whaling and eating whale meat is part of Japanese tradition and culture, people are willing to believe it.”
This seems to be changing. Even in Taiji, the epicenter of Japan’s most maligned maritime practice, the number of people engaged directly in the dolphin trade has dwindled to a mere 100 of the town’s population of 3,400, according to Nanami Kurasawa of Iruka & Kujira (Dolphin & Whale) Action Network (IKAN). Kurasawa proposes a different approach.
“If they want to get more tourists, they can for example exhibit the beautiful whale-hunting ships used in ancient days,” she said. “That would show their tradition without stirring more controversy.”