Councilmen From Japanese Whaling Town Break Code of Silence

TAIJI, Japan, August 30, 2007 (ENS) - Two town council members from the whaling town of Taiji have come out publicly against the feeding of dolphin meat contaminated with mercury to children in Japanís school lunch programs. It is the first time that Japanese elected officials have broken the unwritten rule against criticizing whaling and the consumption of whale meat that prevails across the country.

Independents Junichiro Yamashita and Hisato Ryono will be holding a news conference on Monday to announce laboratory test results of samples taken from dolphin meat purchased at local supermarkets. The meat was found to contain over 10 times the government's limit for both mercury and methyl mercury.

The news conference comes as the annual dolphin drive hunt begins in Taiji. Conservationists around the world oppose the hunt, the largest kill of dolphins anywhere in the world, which takes place over six months beginning in September.

From left, Taiji City Assemblymen Junichiro Yamashita and Hisato Ryono (Photo by Boyd Harnell courtesy Save Japan Dolphins)
Yamashita said, "We're not against traditional whaling, but we heard claims that pilot whales are poisoned with mercury, and we discovered that some of this meat from the drive fisheries was fed to kids in school lunches."

The assemblymen described the dolphin meat as "toxic waste" and are attempting to persuade other elected officials in Taiji and surrounding towns to take it off school lunch menus.

Although the supermarkets immediately removed dolphin meat from their shelves after they were informed of the test results, the town of Taiji is moving ahead with plans to build a new dolphin processing facility while expanding the dolphin meat lunch programs to surrounding school districts, says Ric O'Barry of the advocacy group Save Japan Dolphins.

A former trainer of dolphin TV star Flipper, O'Barry is an American who travels to Taiji to oppose the annual dolphin hunt.

O'Barry is attempting to draw the attention of the Japanese media to the efforts of Yamashita and Ryono to stop the feeding of mercury-laced dolphin meat to children at school, but he says "the complete stonewalling by Japanese government agencies and the media on the issue now prompts Yamashita to bring his case to the attention of the foreign press."

A notice of Yamashita's news conference is listed on the website of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan.

One Japanese newspaper has published an article about Yamashita and Ryono's lab tests. On August 1, the "Japan Times" ran an article quoting Yamashita as saying the two council members at first did not believe the reports of contaminated meat, which came from western conservation organizations.

"We tested some samples purchased at the Gyoko supermarket in Taiji and Super Center Okuwa in the nearby city of Shingu," Yamashita said. The councilmen were "shocked" by the results.

Dolphin meat for sale in a Japanese supermarket. (Photo courtesy Sea Shepherd Conservation Society)
"One dolphin sample had a mercury content 10 times above the health ministryís advisory level of 0.4 parts per million, with a methylmercury readout 10.33 times over the ministryís own advisory level of 0.3 ppm," the article states.

"Another dolphin sample tested 15.97 times and 12 times above advisory levels of total mercury and methylmercury, respectively."

The nervous system is very sensitive to all forms of mercury. Methylmercury and metallic mercury vapors are more harmful than other forms, because more mercury in these forms reaches the brain.

Exposure to high levels of metallic, inorganic, or organic mercury can permanently damage the brain, kidneys, and developing fetus. Children poisoned by mercury may develop problems of their nervous and digestive systems, and kidney damage. Effects on brain functioning may result in irritability, shyness, tremors, changes in vision or hearing, and memory problems.

Mercury poisoning received worldwide attention during the 1950s when hundreds died and thousands more were injured in the city of Minamata, Japan after a corporation polluted the waters of Minamata Bay with mercury compounds. Local residents who ate fish from the bay were poisoned.

Many governments now issue health bulletins advising pregnant women and children to avoid eating fish known to contain high levels of mercury.

At Taiji, dolphins are hunted for meat and also captured live for sale to marine parks and aquariums, fetching much higher prices for the Taiji fishers than dolphins killed for meat.

Fishermen have driven a pod of dolphins into the killing cove and cut off their escape with nets. ( Photo by Helene O’Barry courtesy Save Japan Dolphins)
The activists are moved by the cries of the dolphin mothers with newborn calves "who call out in distress as they are separated in the most brutal ways imaginable," said a coalition of evironmental groups in a joint statement during the 2005 hunt.

"They are driven onto Japanese beaches and bays, stabbed with spears and knives, then left to slowly bleed to death literally turning the sea red while others drown entangled in nets. Some of the dolphins are taken alive, pulled out of the water by ropes tied around their tails to be sold to marine parks," the groups said.

The Fisheries Agency of Japan is going to add Pacific white-sided dolphins to the catch quota of the Taiji drive fishery for the 2007 hunting season, saying that there has been "a strong request from fishers in recent years to allow their capture."

The Elsa Nature Conservancy, a Japanese organization, strongly objects to this broadening of the hunt, and contends that the request to capture Pacific white-sided dolphins comes not from fishers but from aquariums.

In a November 27, 2006 letter of protest to the Fishery Agency, Conservancy president Eiji Fujiwara writes, "An internal communication sent by the Japan Cetacean Conference on Zoological Gardens and Aquariums on August 16, 2006 to the directors of zoos and aquariums which are members of the Cetacean Conference notes that Pacific white-sided dolphins are hard to obtain, and that not all aquarium directors who desire to obtain them have done so."

Fujiwara objects that the Taiji Whale Museum buys the live dolphins and turns around and "sells them to China and other countries for prices about seven times the initial purchase price under the pretext of 'scientific purposes.'

This is none other than "dolphin flipping," writes Fujiwara, pointing out that "there is even strong opposition to it from among local citizens and town council members."

"It is anticipated that if the capture of Pacific white-sided dolphins is permitted, it will further increase this "dolphin flipping" under the pretext of "scientific exchanges," he writes.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.