Mercury poisoning may save whales
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2007:
TAIJI–Three days after Christmas 2006, a long-anticipated
confrontation between the two-ship fleet of the Sea Shepherd
Conservation Society and the Japanese whaling fleet inside the
International Whaling Commission-designated Southern Oceans Whale
Sanctuary had yet to develop–but Ric O’Barry took the fight against
Japanese whaling right into Japanese supermarkets, and on Boxing Day
2006 scored a second round knockout against the Taiji coastal whalers.
Taiji coastal whaling little resembles high seas whaling.
Instead of shooting great whales with harpoon guns and butchering
them aboard the factory ship Nisshin Maru in the name of scientific
research, the coastal whalers drive small whales into shallow water
where a few are selected for sale to marine mammal parks.
The rest are hacked, stabbed, hanged, and even butchered
alive with chainsaws, in a frenzied massacre of marine mammals
rivaling the violence of seal-clubbing in Atlantic Canada and
Namibia, and the comparable whale killing conducted in the Faroe
Islands, a Danish protectorate.
The mayhem in each instance vents the frustration of fishers
who blame marine mammals for poor catches in polluted and long
heavily overfished waters, and lack the education to pursue more
lucrative work. While high seas whalers pretend to be scientists,
coastal whalers and sealers have small chance of ever passing for
anything other than chronically underemployed.
Despite the outward differences between so-called “research
whaling” and Taiji, the slaughters both produce meat for Japanese
tables. Both are politically defended as part of the Japanese food
tradition, even though the weight of evidence suggests few Japanese
ate much whale meat before post-World War II food shortages.
During that same era, politicians looked away as fishers
marketed catches collected from Minimata Bay, contaminated by
mercury and other toxins discharged for decades from a nearby
chemical processing plant. More than 3,000 people eventually
suffered from symptoms of mercury poisoning that came to be known as
“Minimata Syndrome.” Forty years of lawsuits followed, as the
survivors sought compensation. Mercury pollution has been
politically hot in Japan ever since.
O’Barry happened upon information indicating that the mercury
levels in small whales caught in Japanese waters tend to be
abnormally high. That gave him an idea.
“During our last campaign in Taiji,” O’Barry e-mailed to
ANIMAL PEOPLE, “we visited several supermarkets owned by the Okuwa
Supermarket Corporation. We asked if they would sell imported
American or Australian beef if they knew the mercury levels were at
the same dangerous levels as in the dolphin meat caught in Taiji.
“We also informed the supermarkets that Dr. Tetsuya Endo of
the Hokkaido Health Science University, the Dai Ichi Health Science
University and New Zealand Health Science University conducted a
three-year joint study on mercury levels of dolphin meat from
dolphins caught off Japan–including Taiji,” O’Barry said. “They
found very high levels of mercury in every sample of dolphin meat
that they tested. Their conclusion: nobody should consume dolphin
“That the Japanese Minister of Health and Welfare has known
about the danger yet chose not to warn the public defies logic,”
“On December 12th,” O’Barry continued, “we bought a package
of striped dolphin meat from the Shingu Okuwa Supermarket and
delivered it to The Japan Times in Tokyo to be independently tested.
The second random sample tested at 14 times above the advisory level.
The first sample tested was over 4 times the advisory level.
“On December 26, 2006,” O’Barry said, “the Okuwa
Supermarket Corporation, banned the sale of all dolphin meat in all
of their stores. They will decide if the ban is to be permanent
after they test their own samples. The testing will be done in Tokyo
by an independent laboratory. Based on the science we have seen, we
expect the ban on dolphin meat in this supermarket chain to be
Through the end of 2006, only Japan Times reporter Boyd
Harnell had made the mercury testing data accessible to the Japanese
public–in English. O’Barry said he was unaware of any exposure in
But O’Barry anticipated that, “Now that the largest
supermarket chain in Japan has banned the sale of dolphin meat, it
will be very difficult for other markets in Japan to continue selling
There is some question as to whether much dolphin meat is
actually sold in Japan. Ocean Project director Paul Boyle and Emery
University biologist Lori Marino recently told reporters that they
believe dolphin meat is extensively used for pet food and fertilizer.
“Approximately 23,000 dolphins, porpoises, and other small
whales are slaughtered in Japan every year,” O’Barry said. “Where
is all of this poisoned dolphin meat going? Nobody knows for sure.
Some have speculated that it might be exported to North Korea and
“These countries have a protein shortage and welcome any help
that they can get. But do they know that they are importing
mercury-contaminated dolphin meat? Probably not,” O’Barry
speculated. “We know that a lot of the meat from Japan’s so-called
‘scientitic whaling’ is stored in freezers because there is not
enough demand to sell the stuff. We are not sure where the dolphin
meat is going,” O’Barry admitted, “but are encouraged that the
demand side is drying up.
“It’s about genocide”
“If the Japanese dolphin hunters continue the annual dolphin
slaughter despite the mercury poisoning of the meat, they will be
forced to tell the world the truth–that it is not about culture or
tradition,” O’Barry said. “It’s about genocide. The dolphin
hunters are killing the competition while playing the culture and
Boyle, a past director of the New York Aquarium, told
Associated Press that there is no scientific support for the belief
that dolphins compete to catch fish of the species that the coastal
“Now,” O’Barry said, “if we could only get the dolphin
trainers and dolphin dealers out of Taiji. Especially the
The Taiji slaughter has been formally opposed by the Alliance
of Marine Mammal Parks & Aquariums and the American Zoo & Aquarium
Association since March 2004, and by the World Association of Zoos
& Aquariums since June 2006, but many trainers from western nations
work for marine mammal exhibition and “swim-with” facilities that do
not belong to the professional associations.
Noted Mark Palmer of Earth Island Institute, “Scientists
calling a [recently caught] dolphin with four fins, instead of the
usual two, a throwback to the evolutionary past. What they are
not saying is that this dolphin was captured in a brutal ‘drive
fishery’ at Taiji. The dolphin in question is housed in the Taiji
Whale Museum, where visitors can see trained dolphins perform and
then go to the souvenir shop and buy whale and dolphin meat.”
Said O’Barry, “I was there when the 4-finned dolphin was
captured. Aquarium representatives actively helped the fishermen
catch the dolphins to be butchered.”
Campaigning against the Taiji killing are the Elsa Nature
Conservancy of Japan, the International Marine Mammal Project of
Earth Island Institute, and the French organization One Voice.
Meanwhile off Antarctica…
The five-vessel Japanese “research” whaling fleet departed
for Antarctic waters on November 15, 2006, planning to kill 945
minke whales and 10 fin whales within the designated but unguarded
Southern Oceans Whale Sanctuary. This will be almost as many as the
1,253 minke whales and more than the nine fin whales that the
Japanese fleet has killed within the sanctuary since 2001.
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Paul Watson told
Guardian environment writer John Vidal on December 11, 2006 that the
newly purchased and renamed former U.S. Coast Guard vessel Leviathan
“is at sea and on the way south to the coast of Antarctica. It looks
as if we will be in a position to confront the Japanese whaling fleet
in the Antarctic during the last week of December,” Watson said.
“This time, with the new ship,” Watson continued, “they
can’t lose us. If they can’t shake us off, I am pretty confident we
can stop them. If they get violent toward us, I suppose it could
get very physical. We are quite willing to instigate an
international incident over this,” Watson declared.
Watson said earlier that the Sea Shepherds would also have
the Farley Mowat in Antarctic waters, the vessel that was shadowing
the Nisshin Maru on January 8, 2006 when the Japanese factory ship
collided with the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise.
Greenpeace spokesperson Sara Holden, in Amsterdam,
indicated that Greenpeace would again deploy the Arctic Sunrise and
the Esperanza, the same two ships that it used to follow the
Japanese whalers in 2005-2006. As of mid-December, however, the
Arctic Sunrise was in the Baltic Sea, at almost the opposite end of
the globe, and the Esperanza was off Baja California.