Year after 'Cove' Oscar, activists shift tactics

In the fervor of the Academy Awards in Hollywood on Sunday, last year's winners will be a distant memory. Half a world away in the Japanese fishing village of Taiji, few will ever forget the film that won in 2010 for Best Documentary Feature.

A year after "The Cove" received an Oscar for its scathing portrayal of Taiji's dolphin hunting tradition, the tiny town is still under siege by foreign activists. That's created a deep deadlock with Taiji's fishermen, leading some activists to seek a different tact.

"I'm trying to get a grass-roots movement going in Japan. I've come to realize, you can't show up with a big stick and tell them what to do," said Ric O'Barry, the veteran dolphin activist who stars in "The Cove."

A smattering of foreign protesters has come for years to Taiji, but since the success of the movie the sleepy town of 3,500 has been inundated. The environmental group Sea Shepherd has started a "Cove Guardian" program that brings visitors, new groups such as "Taiji Action Group" and "Eyes on Taiji" have sprung up, and many people have come on their own.

The influx has had little effect. The town's two dozen dolphin hunters, most of whom are gruff ex-whalers, ignore the protesters as unwanted foreign pressure on their traditions, and have responded with elaborate tarp structures to hide the gorier aspects of their work. A rare public meeting between the two sides in November ended in confusion and discord, and town officials say the attention is largely a nuisance.

"We're a small town, we really can't get anything else done while this is going on," said Masahiro Mukai, who normally runs the town's volunteer fire department but now goes on regular patrols to monitor the activists.

So activists like O'Barry are trying to recruit more Japanese to their cause, publishing materials in the Japanese language and holding meetings with those who show an interest. Longtime Japanese activists like Masato Sakano have organized crowded forums in Tokyo to discuss the implications of "The Cove" and the Taiji hunts.

While many in the country feel the town should be allowed its traditional ways, others are coming to Taiji to protest or simply see for themselves.

"A lot of foreigners are helping us, but if we don't do something on our own, this problem won't be resolved," said Yoshiko Wada, 33, a hairdresser who has visited the town six times.

The government permits about 20,000 dolphins to be hunted along Japan's coasts each year. Only about 2,000 of those are taken in Taiji, but it is singled out mainly because it uses drive fishing, in which the animals are herded near to shore and slaughtered in shallow water, as opposed to being harpooned at sea.

This method also lends itself to capturing live animals, because they are relatively unscathed and can be examined up close by aquarium buyers or dolphin dealers. Those that aren't picked are killed for meat or occasionally released.

In years past several towns captured live dolphins in Japan, but now only Taiji remains. So a complete end to the hunts would be difficult, because they have become crucial for the popular and lucrative dolphin shows throughout the country, and captive breeding is rare.

While killing dolphins for food remains a cultural touchstone, the hunts generate far more money from selling live animals. Bottlenose dolphins sold for meat typically go for several hundred dollars, while prime live animals sell for about $10,000 domestically and much more abroad. In the year ending in March 2010, 79 dolphins were exported from Japan for 277 million yen ($3.38 million), the government says.

With Taiji's fishermen unlikely to bend to foreign pressure and the strong ties to Japan's aquarium industry, a quick end to the hunts looks unlikely. Some foreign activists have called for protests directly at aquariums, but others question that approach.

"If we can't shut down aquariums in our own countries, how do you go to the Japanese and ask them to do that here?" said Michael Dalton, an Australian activist living near Taiji.