In a grisly annual ritual, Japanese fishermen herd bottlenose dolphins into shallow water then kill the highly evolved marine mammals with knives and clubs, turning the sea a bright red with their blood. Some are strung up by their tails to suffer agonizing deaths. This year, the government of Japan will allow 21,000 dolphins to be slaughtered in that manner.
Now, scientists and aquarium operators worldwide have started a petition drive "to bring this unconscionable practice to an end." (The petition can be accessed and signed online at www. actfordolphins.org.)
So far, Japanese officials have resisted pressure to end the "dolphin drives," calling them a "cultural activity." Yet the meat of dolphins (and sometimes small whales) isn't an important commodity in the island nation. Although Japanese officials say the meat is consumed, much of it is used for pet food and fertilizer, according to the Ocean Project conservation group.
In the past, the fishermen have made money by selling surviving dolphins to aquariums around the world, but the largest zoo and aquarium organization now prohibits such purchases and condemns the hunts. That leaves no practical reason for continuing the slaughter.
Japanese officials are hypocritical in trying to justify their stubbornness. While Japan has supported protections for monkeys and apes in the wild, it considers dolphins little more than a marine resource to be exploited. So the scientists are focusing their campaign on explaining the high intelligence of dolphins.
"Whales and dolphins are at least as sophisticated as the nonhuman great apes," said Hal Whitehead, a dolphin expert.
Whether for reasons of conserving ocean resources, ending animal cruelty or showing respect for higher life forms that have something to teach humans, the Japanese need to stop this atavistic ritual. And the world needs to raise its voice in protest until they do.