OSAKA, Japan — A year after the Oscar award-winning documentary "The Cove" alerted the world to Japan’s annual slaughter and sale of thousands of dolphins, the waters off Taiji are again running red with cetacean blood.
After months of fielding the unwelcome attentions of the global media, fishermen in the isolated town of 3,500 people on Japan’s Pacific coast have resumed their slaughter, determined, they say, to protect a centuries-old tradition.
According to reports in Japan, about 20 bottlenose dolphins were caught within hours of the launch of the current season, which began earlier this month.
Some of the 2,300 bottlenose dolphins and pilot whales Taiji hopes to catch before the season ends in March will be sold to sea parks and aquariums around the world, with the best specimens fetching up to $150,000.
Many more will be harpooned to death in the notorious cove that gave the film its name.
As international media coverage fades, an eclectic army of animal rights activists has pledged to increase pressure on the Taiji authorities and the Japanese government until the killing stops.
They include Scott West, a member of the marine conservation group Sea Shepherd, who is attempting to document the hunt with his 16-year-old daughter, Elora.
West, a former special agent with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, played down criticisms of Sea Shepherd’s direct tactics, as witnessed in recent anti-whaling campaigns in the Southern Ocean.
He said he and the group’s founder, Paul Watson, had agreed to adopt a low-key approach in Taiji. “We came here determined not to get arrested,” he said. “That wouldn’t help our cause at all. We are being law-abiding and open about everything we do.”
Elora, who is blogging about her time in Taiji, said: “I wish I could explain how it makes me feel when I see dolphins being slaughtered. You feel angry and you want to cry, but you also want to laugh at the fishermen’s ignorance of what wonderful creatures these are.”
Earlier this month, the star of "The Cove," Ric O’Barry, presented the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo with a petition signed by 1.7 million people in more than 150 countries, calling for an end to the hunts.
O’Barry, a former dolphin trainer for the 1960s TV series "Flipper," said: “We have come to ask President Obama to get involved in this issue and ask the Japanese government to abolish this annual, anachronistic, brutal slaughter of dolphins.”
Fisheries workers guide what appear to be pilot whales at a cove in Taiji, Japan, Sept. 10, 2009.
The 70-year-old had to abandon a planned trip with other activists to Taiji after receiving threats from extreme right-wing groups that object to what they see as attempts by the environmental lobby to deprive fishermen of their livelihoods.
The same groups protested outside several Japanese cinemas that screened "The Cove" this summer, a move O’Barry said had simply brought the film extra publicity.
“I want to thank the right-wing for their campaign,” he said. “Without them 'The Cove' would not have been as popular here as it was.”
The Society to Seek the Restoration of Sovereignty harassed "The Cove’s" Japanese distributor, Unplugged, claiming that the film “intentionally distorts Japanese people's food culture, and showing it will hurt many people's feelings.”
O’Barry, whose TV follow-up to "The Cove," "Blood Dolphins," has just aired on the Animal Planet channel, believes it is time for the anti-hunt lobby to change tactics.
"Maybe it's time to back off,” he said. “Japanese people have to get involved in this issue. There are groups out there calling for a boycott of Japanese goods, but I am involved in an anti-boycott campaign. We want people to go to Taiji and spend money in its hotels, restaurants and shops. We want to stimulate Taiji’s economy, not ruin it.
“I like Taiji, and its people. The vast majority of fishermen there do not kill dolphins. It is only 26 guys who have given the place a huge amount of negative publicity around the world.”
But the siege mentality that gripped Taiji’s residents during the height of "The Cove’s" popularity returned this month with the arrival of activists determined to maintain pressure on the town’s dolphin hunters.
Earlier this week Black Fish, a little-known European group, claimed its divers had cut the nets of six holding pens in an attempt to free captured dolphins. No arrests were made, the group said on its website.
West said fishermen had confronted him and his daughter earlier this week as they attempted to film them loading tanks of live dolphins on to trucks.
Despite the resumption of the dolphin cull, he believes "The Cove’s" message has started to resonate among some Japanese.
“I’ve met several people who said they’d heard about Taiji and wanted to see it for themselves. But I don’t think there will be change until the Japanese government understands that what happens here stains the reputation of an entire nation.”