Japanese fishermen have killed around 40 dolphins targeted for their meat as part of a larger group trapped in what activists say is the biggest round-up they have witnessed in the last four annual hunts.
Both the US and British ambassadors to Japan have strongly criticised the “drive killings” of dolphins, citing the “terrible suffering” inflicted on the marine mammals.
Every year the fishermen of Taiji, in western Japan, drive hundreds of dolphins into a cove, select some for sale to marine parks, release some and kill the rest for meat.
Yesterday, at least 30 dolphins out of the group of more than 200 held in the cove since Friday were herded by boat engines and nets into a killing area of the Taiji cove.
Fishermen waiting in the shallow waters by the shore, some in wet suits with snorkelling masks on their faces, wrestled the dolphins into submission and tied their tails with ropes to stop them from escaping.
Before the killing began, fishermen pulled a tarpaulin in front and over the cove to prevent activists and reporters from seeing the killing. A large pool of blood seeped under the tarpaulin and spread across the cove.
“A metal rod was stabbed into their spinal cord, where they were left to bleed out, suffocate and die. After a traumatic four days held captive in the killing cove, they experienced violent captive selection, being separated from their family, and then eventually were killed today,” Sea Shepherd Conservation Society activist Melissa Sehgal said.
The annual hunt has long been a source of controversy and was the topic of the 2009 film The Cove, an Oscar-winning documentary that brought Taiji into the international spotlight.
Sea Shepherd, best known for its anti-whaling activities, said that of roughly 250 captured dolphins, the fishermen first selected 52 to keep alive for sale to aquariums and other customers. They included a rare albino calf and its mother.
Of the rest, about 40 were killed, one became stuck in a net and drowned, and the others were released, it said.
A video released by Sea Shepherd shows dozens of fishermen on boats surveying the dolphins after they were confined to a cove with nets. Divers can be seen holding the dolphins selected for sale and guiding them to nets hanging off the boats.
“The UK opposes all forms of dolphin and porpoise drives; they cause terrible suffering. We regularly raise [the issue] with Japan,” said the British Ambassador to Japan, Timothy Hitchens.
Caroline Kennedy, the US envoy to Tokyo, has also said she was “deeply concerned” about the hunt.
Japan maintains that killing dolphins is not banned under any international treaty and that the animals are not endangered.
Yoshinobu Nisaka, the governor of Wakayama prefecture where Taiji is located, rejected Ms Kennedy’s concerns.
“Dietary culture varies and it is the wisdom of civilisation to mutually respect other standpoints unless the world faces a lack of resources,” Mr Nisaka was quoted by Kyodo news agency as telling reporters.
The Taiji fishing union rejected requests for comment.
A Japanese government spokesman defended the annual dolphin hunt, saying it is carried out in accordance with the law.
The dolphin hunting season runs yearly from September to March. Sea Shepherd said around 600 marine mammals had been killed this season before yesterday’s slaughter.