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NEW THREAT TO JAPANESE TRADITION

Tests show high levels of mercury in dolphin and pilot whale meat.

For years, Western activists have traveled to this remote port to protest the annual dolphin drive. And for years, local fishermen have ignored them, herding the animals into a small cove and slashing them until the tide flows red.

But a new menace may succeed where the activists have failed: mercury.

This is an old seafaring town. The 3,500 residents are fiercely proud of their centuries-old tradition of hunting dolphins and whales. Dolphin meat is a prized local delicacy, served raw as sashimi or boiled with soy sauce. People here are used to the international scorn that accompanies the dolphin hunt and have closed ranks in the face of rising outrage - until now.

In June, laboratory tests showed high levels of mercury in dolphin and pilot whale, a small whale that resembles a dolphin, that were caught and sold here. Schools stopped serving pilot whale meat for lunch, and some local supermarkets removed it and dolphin from their shelves.

The problem is hardly limited to Taiji. Japan is one of the world's largest whale and dolphin consuming nations, yet the Health and Agriculture ministries, as well as the news media, have said little about the growing mercury levels found in whale and dolphin meat. Indeed, the whaling industry seems to enjoy a protected status, mainly as a mark of tradition to be defended against foreign interference.

Taiji is the best-known source of dolphin meat, partly because the most animals are killed here, about 2,000 annually, in a season that runs from September to April.

According to the local whaling museum, the people of Taiji have hunted coastal whales for 400 years. Proponents of whaling fear that the warning about mercury may reduce the popularity of dolphin meat, which accounts for about a third of the town's roughly $3-million annual fishing industry, according to the fishermen's association.

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