Japan’s dolphin and whale hunts have deservedly been the target of international outrage and protest. The annual hunting of another marine animal, Dall’s porpoise, has received less notice, even though more than a thousand were killed with hand harpoons in the most recent hunt.
The total of about 1,200 porpoises who were killed from November 2012 to April 2013 was lower than in previous years. As Claire Perry of the U.K.-based Environmental Investigation Agency says, the reason for these declining numbers is simply because “there are fewer porpoises to catch.”
Dall’s porpoises are found only in the north Pacific. With a thick body and a relatively small head, they have a unique shape among cetaceans; they are dark gray to black in color, with white frosting on their flanks and bellies. In the 1970s, the public first became aware of these marine animals (the largest of the six species of porpoises — an adult male can weigh up to 500 pounds) when thousands were caught in salmon fishing trawls along with other cetaceans.
In 1997, just over 18,000 Dall’s porpoises were killed using hand harpoons, Perry (who has visited Otsuchi in Iwate Prefecture where the hunt is based) writes. In 2010, just under 5,000 Dall’s porpoises were caught, the smallest number since records were began in 1963 but still far more than the 1,242 dolphins, pilot whales and false killer whales (all of whom are part of the dolphin family) killed in Taiji, as depicted in the documentary The Cove.
Even after the devastating tsunami and earthquake that hit Japan in 2011, the hunt of Dall’s porpoise still occurred, though on a much smaller scale than in previous years as hunting boats and coastal cities recovered from the disaster.
The 1,200 killed in the most recent hunt are far fewer than have been in the past. But the drop in numbers is still reason for alarm. Perry argues that the smaller numbers of animals being caught is itself a sign that the population of Dall’s porpoises could be on the decline.
Both Sea Shepherd and Save Japan Dolphins have been documenting the Dall’s porpoise hunt over the years. As Sea Shepherd notes, the actual number of Dall’s porpoises who die as a result of the hunt is very likely far higher than reported because the “official numbers do not count those that are wounded, but not brought into port nor do they count the numbers of nursing babies that are left to starve to death after their mothers have been killed.”
Perry also emphasizes that the stress of the hunt as well as “social disruption and potential evolutionary consequences” must also be posing a “long-term threat to these populations’ ability to recover,” Perry underscores.
Like dolphins and whales, Dall’s porpoise is hunted to provide Japanese consumers with cetacean meat at a serious risk to their health. Some samples of Dall’s products have been found to contain mercury as well as “PCB levels eight times the recommended safe maximum,” Perry says.
Consumers have been more aware of such risks and Japan has passed new regulations to make sure that porpoise meat is not improperly packaged as whale meat. But more must be done to protect Dall’s porpoise. The hunting of Dall’s porpoise has not received as much attention as that of dolphins, in part because it happens out at sea, unlike that of dolphins killed in Taiji.
As Perry explains in Take Part, “the porpoises are landed early in the morning after being kept on ice and the whole process doesn’t have the graphic element of the Taiji hunts.” The porpoises are gutted at sea and their carcasses are brought to shore to be butchered.
Dall’s porpoise is not an endangered species. But if the annual hunt keeps up at current levels, the long-term survival of these porpoises could very much be threatened.
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