How to piss off the international community and incur upon your culture accusations of barbarity and backwardness in four easy steps:
- Find a bunch of dolphins or other small cetaceans.
- Get some motorboats and some nets and herd them towards the shore.
- Kill as many dolphins as you can using the government-sanctioned pin-to-the-brain method. Or, if this is inconvenient, whatever’s lying around will do just fine. Clubs, harpoons, pikes, scythes, machetes… it’s all good.
- Peddle the slaughtered to your fellow hungry countrymen. Any survivors go to the highest-bidding aquaria or zoos (where they usually die anyway).
Sounds fun, right?
Hmm… maybe not.
I first learned about dolphin drive hunting a week or two ago, when a few stories about it cropped up in the “Japan” section of my Google News page, reporting or editorializing on the hunts held in the towns of Futo, Shizuoka 静岡県富戸町 and Taiji, Wakayama 和歌山県太地町. Intrigued, I took a quick trip to Wikipedia, where I learned that this isn’t a Japan-only phenomenon; apparently, dolphins are hunted and consumed in much the same way in Peru, the Faroe Islands, and the Solomon Islands, among other places. I had no idea anybody ate dolphins, and this information came as a shock even to me, someone who has developed an unhealthy interest in foods that most Americans would consider to be either taboo or just plain bizarre (one of my favorite books in recent memory is Jerry Hopkins’s Extreme Cuisine, which deals with a number of the items listed on Weird-Food.com). I have professed on more than one occasion that I will eat anything. Anything.
But dolphin?! My initial gut reaction to the drive hunts was that I would probably not be convinced to eat dolphin, culinary viking though I may want to be. Of course, this begs the question: why not? In the past, I have been open to eating (and, in some cases even actively sought out), the following things: live octopus, whale, dog, and monkey. I have sampled horse, and I was planning on having it again when I go to Kumamoto this weekend. So why should dolphins be spared when I’ve displayed such a callous disregard for other, similarly intelligent animals?
I’ve talked to several of my friends about this, a few of them vegetarians or pescetarians. One fellow meat-eater said, matter-of-factly, “I would probably eat a dolphin,” but he would be opposed to killing it himself. This reminded me of the chapter in Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour in which Tony is forced to witness – after years of working as a chef who had always received his meat nicely cleaned and packaged by a butcher – the bloody ritual slaughter of a hog in a village in Portugal. He describes the experience as, well… enlightening, to say the least. Meat becomes an entirely different thing when you’re presented with the inherent violence and gore of its production, and I think part of what made me think so hard about dolphins as food was the jarring way in which I learned about it. Some of those photos on Wikipedia (and elsewhere on the Internet) are fairly disturbing.
When I told a former vegetarian friend of mine that I probably wouldn’t eat dolphin because I think they’re too intelligent to justify killing, he asked me how they’re more intelligent than cows or pigs, and why that matters. And the fact is, I have no idea. I articulated this a bit better to another vegetarian friend, telling her that I think dolphins shouldn’t be hunted because they’re capable of having fairly complex relationships with each other, with their environment, and with humans. Noting that just about all animals – or all mammals, anyway – are cognizant of social or ecological relationships in similar ways, she accused me of being “human-centric.” And I’m afraid I’m guilty as charged.
But that brings me to an important point: what about the Japanese fishermen who claim this as a millennia-old tradition? In a message conspicuously written in English on a web page otherwise completely in Japanese, members of the Taiji Fisherman’s Cooperative (Taiji gyogyou kyoudou kumiai 太地漁業協同組合) have stated, in response to interventions by foreign “eco-terrorists”:
… the community of Taiji is alert when interlopers whose agendas are based neither on international law nor on science but rather on emotion for economic self-interest continue willfully to distort the facts about this fishery. The dolphin fishery represents an important part of the tradition through which generations of Taiji fishermen have supplied their community with food. They will continue to do so.
But of course, you’d have to be pretty naïve to believe that the dolphin drive in Taiji is an act of subsistance fishing, especially because the hunts are increasingly used as a means of acquiring live cetaceans to sell to aquaria around the world (including in the United States). So, at the risk of sounding culturally insensitive, I would tend to not side with the fishermen. I can’t really find a way to justify the drive hunts, particularly for the quantity of dolphins killed each year and for the somewhat brutal killing methods.
At any rate, researching the dolphin drives has landed me in something of a quandary. I am no longer sure I’ll be seeking out the horse sashimi in Kumamoto this weekend, and to be perfectly honest, I have called into question my consumption of beef and pork. Suddenly, it’s hard to resolve what it is that makes me feel justified in eating cows and pigs, but not dolphins.
- Dolphin and Whale Action Network homepage (Japanese)
- Transcript from a PBS documentary on the hunts
- BBC commentary on the hunts
- Independent report on the hunts from Kjeld Duits