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Small whale and dolphin hunts in Japan

In the last 70 years, over 1 million small whales and dolphins have been hunted around the coast of Japan.

Most people know about Japanese whaling, and about the slaughter in the village of Taiji, made famous in Oscar winning film: The Cove.

But few realise that thousands more are killed every year in the waters surrounding Japan. According to Japan’s own records, from 2000 to 2016, a staggering 173,656 dolphins and small whales were killed. Over a million have been killed in hunts in the last 70 years!

This number, shocking as it is, is could even be an underestimate. Currently there are three different types of hunts for small cetaceans in Japanese coastal waters.

Risso's dolphin

‘Small-type’ coastal whaling

Usually conducted by smaller boats (less than 50 tonnes) on day trips and within 50 nautical miles of the coast. Hunters use small harpoons to hunt for Baird’s beaked whale, short-finned pilot whale and false killer whale.

Drive hunts

Also called ‘drive fisheries’ or acoustic hunts’. Once a pod of small whales or dolphins is sighted in deeper water, they are herded together and ‘driven’ to shore by a curtain of noise (fishermen bang on metal poles making a deafening underwater sound that confuses the dolphins). At the shore, they are slaughtered for meat or hand-picked to live out their lives in a dolphinarium. This type of hunt was once widespread but is now restricted to the infamous Taiji. In the past the main target was striped dolphins. At its peak more than 21,000 dolphins were killed each year. This dropped dramatically, likely because of years of over-exploitation and a desire to target species that would be a good fit for captivity. In 2018 as few as 284 were taken. However, this has resulted in more species being added to the ‘take list,’ and there are now quotas for nine species (see Taiji).

With a reduction in demand and high pollutant levels found in the meat, hunting in Taiji is now driven by the market for ‘live’ dolphins for the entertainment industry. A dead dolphin will fetch on average US$400, whilst a live, trained one, close to US$150,000. The direct link between these drive hunts and the captivity industry has been made most recently with the news that Taiji fishermen have signed a five year, US$15 million deal with Chinese aquariums to supply hundreds of live dolphins.

Hand-held harpoons

As the name suggests, animals are chased until they are exhausted and then harpooned by hand. Instead of killing the dolphins outright, the hunters sometimes tie the injured and dying dolphin to a float only to go off in search of other victims, returning much later to collect them.

This type of hunting dates back many centuries but with faster boats, hunts have recently increased in size and scope. Eight species of small whale and dolphin can be taken in this type of hunt but mostly the target is Dall’s porpoise. For a long time, Dall’s porpoise had the unenviable title of most hunted small cetacean (not just in Japan but the world over) with the number slaughtered peaking at approx. 46,000 in 1993.

Numbers have reduced dramatically but still an average of 1,500 Dall’s porpoise have been taken each year since 2011.

Some of the targeted species have experienced a drastic decline in numbers as a direct result of over-hunting. Because catches have been low the hunters have simply added new species to the list and expanded the search areas.

WDC is working to help end these hunts, both through international forums and by supporting local grassroots initiatives, Japanese activists and NGO’s. Change has to come from within Japan and WDC is committed to help in any way that we can.

Small cetacean report


A global review of the impacts of hunting on small whales, dolphins and porpoises.

Read our in-depth report into the hunting of small whales and dolphins around the world (published in 2018).

Download the PDF.

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