Annual 'Drive Hunt' killing of wild Japanese whales and dolphins

Butterworth, A., Brakes, P., Vail, C. S., & Reiss, D. (2013). A veterinary and behavioral analysis of dolphin killing methods currently used in the “drive hunt” in Taiji, Japan. Journal of applied animal welfare science, 16 (2), 184-204.

This article studies the methods used in the annual capture and killing of Japanese whales and dolphins, and highlights the unacceptable suffering caused to these animals.

The authors of this article discuss the capture and killing of whales and dolphins which occurs annually in Japan.  An undercover video of a dolphin killed by the recommended 'spinal transection' method is analysed.  It concludes that the whole process is inhumane and does not meet with globally accepted animal welfare standards.

The end of each year marks the beginning of an annual 'drive hunt' in Japan, which involves the killing of over 2000 wild dolphins and pilot whales.  Fishing boats use underwater noise to confuse the animals and drive them into a 'cove' which is then netted off to trap them.  Individuals are selected for sale to Japanese and international marine parks and the remainder are killed, mainly for meat.  In 2010, Iwasaki and Kai reported a new ‘improved’ culling method which killed more quickly than the traditional knife and spear methods, and was thought to be more humane.  A metal rod is inserted into the back of the neck with the intention to cut the spinal cord and cause bleeding, and then the wound is plugged with a wooden peg to reduce 'contamination of the sea' with the blood.  Iwasaki and Kai concluded this after watching a recording of 15 dolphins and one pilot whale being killed by the 'spinal transection' method, and one dolphin being killed using spears and blades.  They reported that the animals killed by spinal transection usually died within seconds.

Is killing by spinal transection really humane?

In his study, a rare recording of the killing of a dolphin by the 'spinal transection' method was analysed by a vet who looked at the dolphin's behaviour the killing method itself.  The initial insertion of the metal rod was unlikely to either kill or even have cut the spinal cord.  It was repeatedly and forcefully re-inserted, and eventually appeared to have damaged the spine, but even this will not cause death quickly.  The subsequent insertion of the wooden peg is likely to have delayed death and prolonged suffering further by reducing external bleeding.  The dolphin continued to struggle in apparent distress for a long time after this.  The dolphin was still moving at the end of the footage for over four minutes after the initial insertion of the metal rod.  The recording also shows many trapped dolphins being tethered by their tails and dragged ashore to the killing area by boats.  This itself no doubt causes considerable distress to the animals.

It was concluded that these intelligent and social animals are killed in a barbaric way in this annual 'drive hunt.'  They will undoubtedly suffer greatly during the capture and killing process, which can take many hours or even days.  They will be unable to breath properly when they are being dragged by the boats, and the killing itself is prolonged process which causes an agonising death by paralysis and slow blood loss.  They will also be aware of the capture and killing of other pod members.  These methods do not comply with globally accepted standards that killing should cause 'immediate insensibility' and minimal suffering. Sadly, there is little legislation in place to protect cetaceans in Japan. Examination of the hunting and killing methods used in the annually event in Japan, highlights the need for tighter animal welfare legislation to be put in place.

World Animal Protection’s view

World Animal Protection believes that the annual drive hunt which happens in Japan each year should be banned, the inhumane killing methods highlighted in this study demonstrates the cruelty of this practice.