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Taiji: Japan's town for the slaughter of dolphins

July 6, 2013 by Robyn Williams  

ABC Radio National

Robyn Williams interviews Alastair Lucas, one of the founders of Australia for Dolphins, on ABC Radio National’s “The Science Show”.

Description: Taiji, near Osaka, is a dolphin town. Tourists see smiley images of dolphins and dolphin paraphernalia abounds. But tourists don’t learn about or appreciate dolphin ecology, their social behaviour or intelligence because Taiji is a place for the slaughter of dolphins. Alastair Lucas describes the fate of dolphins at Taiji and what drives the fishermen to treat these creatures with a complete absence of respect.


Robyn Williams: Did you see The Cove? It won an Oscar.

[Excerpt from The Cove]

Robyn Williams: Well, I couldn't watch it; dolphins being slaughtered in a sea of blood. This is The Science Show on RN. Now, as Australia takes on Japan in the International Court, disputing so-called scientific whaling, we return to The Cove, and a campaign just launched to save those other whale cousins, the dolphins. Alastair Lucas is a leading banker in Melbourne, and he also chairs the Macfarlane Burnet Institute.

In the beginning what really set you off on this path?

Alastair Lucas: Really I had a vague knowledge of it through The Cove, it’s a wonderful film I recommend to everyone and it won an Academy Award, but I hadn't seen the film in full and my daughter brought it to my attention, and that led to her deciding to go to Taiji to see these killings, and I decided to go with her. And I spent, I have to say, the worst week of my life in the most horrible place in the world, this little town on the east coast of Japan. And we witnessed for a week these appalling atrocities.

Robyn Williams: And why do they kill them like that?

Alastair Lucas: Well, it's the cheapest way. Dolphins are large animals, it is quite hard to shoot them, and guns and bullets are expensive. That's the only conclusion, that the way they kill them is the most efficacious. Since this is a moneymaking operation, it's not traditional, it's not cultural, it is all about making money for a very small group of so-called fishermen in this town.

Robyn Williams: And what happens to the dolphins?

Alastair Lucas: It's an interesting business because they herd the dolphins into this cove in a very traumatic way, the way they do it, using a wall of sound confuses the animals. They herd them into this small cove, they keep them overnight, so they are disorientated and very hungry. Then you watch the buyers come. So buyers come from aquariums really in Japan and China, we believe the Middle East.

And the handsome ones, the juveniles who look good, not the babies and not the older ones, not the ordinary ones, but the handsome ones are bought for aquariums. And it may be that they are the unlucky ones, they get to live and they go in unregulated aquariums in those places. Of course Australian and American aquariums have long since banned buying a dolphin from Taiji. The rest of them are butchered in a very traumatic way.

It's terrible to watch and it's actually terrible to listen to, but they use a metal rod. It's based on pithing, we can all remember having to pith frogs in biology class, and they seem to think that this is a humane way, they have argued that it is. But what it involves is forcing a metal rod into the top of the dolphin, just behind the blowhole. They force the metal rod in, they hold the tail, tie the tails, hold the animal at the nose and force this metal rod in. The animal goes into convulsions of pain.

And then they leave the metal rod in for a period, they'll pull it out, they'll then hammer a wooden chock into the wound to prevent blood staining the cove. And we've all seen the photographs of blood in the cove, that no longer happens because they use these wooden chocks that they hammer into the wound. It's very traumatic, it's plainly just enormously painful for the animal. And in fact scientists from the University of Bristol in the UK and City University of New York have carried out quite an extensive study. Their conclusions were that the method of killing was profoundly distressing, traumatic and painful, and it clearly is.

When the killing starts, you hear the screaming. You can't get within a couple of hundred metres but you hear the screaming. It's the most traumatic thing I've ever been a witness to or experienced.

Robyn Williams: And are the so-called fishermen, the people who are doing this work, in any way distressed by what is happening?

Alastair Lucas: They call them vermin. They run an argument that these are vermin of the sea that eat the fishing stocks. There's no evidence of that, none whatsoever. In fact the evidence is to the contrary. They treat them like logs. You'd liken it to a logging operation. They kick them, they push them, they throw them on the beach, they have no concern for these wonderful creatures as sentient beings, none whatsoever.

Robyn Williams: Why would they need dolphin meat? We ask sometimes why they need whale meat, of course they are the same sort of animal. Why would they need dolphin meat at all?

Alastair Lucas: It's interesting because the dolphin meat is actually not a very important part of it. The economics is driven by the aquarium trade. So maybe 10% of the animals go to the aquariums. To get a sense of it, we watched several pods of about 20 come in. So it runs for six months of the year every day. Of the 20, say, of a typical pod, maybe a couple of the handsome ones, as I said, would go off to aquariums. They may sell for up to $150,000, $200,000. That drives the economics. The meat is a by-product, and they go into supermarkets in Japan. We searched a number of supermarkets for dolphin meat. It's hard to find. It most probably is relabelled as whale meat, which is more acceptable. Some of it apparently goes into being pet food.

Robyn Williams: So essentially for human food it's unnecessary.

Alastair Lucas: Oh it's absolutely unnecessary. The quantity of animals, they are killing about 2,000 a year, that's just infinitesimal in terms of the food requirements of Japan, they are absolutely unnecessary for human protein intake.

Robyn Williams: And what has the town felt about the film that was made and the notoriety around the world?

Alastair Lucas: Look, you need to understand a little bit about the town, you need to really go to the town because the town is a dolphin town. It is bizarre. The town gates are big archways with dolphins on them. It's a little harbour and ferries go across the harbour. The ferries are great big dolphins with happy smiling dolphin faces and dolphin tails, they sell dolphin models in the supermarkets, and people go as a tourist town to Taiji to share in a dolphin experience. So they purport to love dolphins.

On our first day there we went to the cove and there was a pod trapped there in readiment for slaughter the next day, and there was a family, a man and his kids, showing the kids the dolphins and laughing and giggling. I don't speak Japanese, so I got my iPad out and translated through the iPad, 'Are you aware these animals will be slaughtered tomorrow?' He read it, he clearly understood but wanted nothing to do with it.

So it's a town built on false pretences. It has this ugly, ugly secret. It's not a secret anymore but it appears to the Japanese people a secret. Holidaymakers go about in their happy way in this happy dolphin town where in the early morning before the sun comes up the dolphins are slaughtered each morning.

Robyn Williams: How do you respond to the argument, which I'm sure you've come across, that we similarly have pig farms and we have the happy pig face outside the big town where bacon happens, and similarly with our approaches to our own kangaroos for that matter when we go hunting them with all sorts of assurances that we have respect for the kangaroos but it's necessary.

Alastair Lucas: Of course I think that one doesn't want to get drawn into a position of saying the way the dolphins are killed is bad and every other way of killing animals is good, and I absolutely don't hold to that position. But I think we can make some distinctions about the intelligence and family nature of dolphins which puts them into a different category of animals. We know now much about the social behaviour and the sheer intelligence of dolphins. Dolphins have a brain 1.7 kilograms, the average human brain is 1.3 kilograms.

Robyn Williams: Pigs are pretty smart you know.

Alastair Lucas: Yes, I know, pigs also have intelligence. But the rules in modern Western nature for abattoir killing are for humane killing using stunning. The fundamentals of ensuring that an animal is not aware of its impending death and that it is stunned, becomes insensitive to all feeling instantly is the fundamental of abattoir killing. We all know that doesn't always happen, we are all very aware of some of our animals in the live export trade.

But the way dolphins are first herded, so they have an awareness of their impending death 24 hours before they are killed…I mean, these animals know something terrible has happened, they've been trapped in these tiny enclosures, they know something very bad is happening. And then the animals are killed one by one, each animal takes up to six to eight minutes to die, the others can hear the screaming.

With whales we watched a pod of pilot whales being killed, and those animals are very hard to kill, they can take 20 minutes to die. So I don't want to put so much weight on the issue of intelligence but I think it is important because these animals have such understanding of their fate. But just the sheer method of killing is so profoundly cruel, it does distinguish it from the killing of farm animals.

Robyn Williams: Tell me about the campaign that's taking off in a few weeks.

Alastair Lucas: Yes, my daughter and I have created, with the help of a bunch of other people, an organisation called Australia for Dolphins. We've had just wonderful support so far. We'll be launching a website and we hope to get as many members as possible, and we're going to use the money lawfully and respectfully and peacefully to advocate for these wonderful animals.

The support we've had has just been amazing, some wonderful Australians have agreed to support us, people like Fiona Stanley and Gus Nossal, and sportspeople like Pat Rafter and Sally Pearson, Dawn Fraser, Olivia Newton John, Michael Caton, just wonderful people who have agreed to lend their support.

We feel very strongly that the Japanese government is at a tipping point. The embarrassment on this issue is building and building, and a number of people who are expert in this area have said that a strong movement from Australia might be the tipping point which stops the whole thing. We really think we have a possibility of bringing this to an end. And the full website will launch shortly.

Robyn Williams: Thank you.

Alastair Lucas: Thank you.

Robyn Williams: Alastair Lucas, a banker from Melbourne, who also chairs the Macfarlane Burnet Institute there. And the link to Australia for Dolphins can be found on the Science Show website. And we shall have more on that campaign soon in The Science Show.

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