Rocky Way to Success for Dolphin and Whale Watching in Futo

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One man's strong conviction and the attention of international media made a difference

Dreadful fishing of dolphins has recently taken place again in Futo, Japan, on the Izu peninsula, south of Tokyo. On November 11, 2004, a pod of approximately 100 bottlenose dolphins where chased in to the port of Futo, in the manner of Japanese pursuit hunting, the so called drive fisheries. In the harbour several fishermen surround the pod with their vessels and make a horrendous noise by banging on metal pipes straight into the water. This sound confuses the dolphin's echolocation system and sets them into panic, making them easy prey to chase into the port, where captivation and slaughter await them.

A few days after the hunt I went to see Mr. Izumi Ishii, who is still the only dolphin and whale watching operator in Futo. I wanted to hear how the business of whale and dolphin watching is doing today.

It all started a few years ago, when he got the entire union of fisheries against him. In 1999, when the horrible slaughter of more than 70 dolphins took place in Futo, Mr. Ishii first reported and documented this. With this documentation, he tried to force the union of fisheries to admit that they had violated international agreements regarding dolphin and whale fishing quotas.

After this, the union held a meeting without his knowledge, in order to terminate his fisherman's license. At the same time his family started receiving anonymous threats. But Mr. Ishii is not the kind of man to surrender to pressure when he knows he is right. He fought the union, and he was set on convincing his fellow fishermen that dolphin slaughter is wrong and that tourism is a more profitable business than dolphin fishing. The attention from the international media and protests from marine mammal organizations world wide have helped him to continue his struggle to change the attitudes of the fishermen. "Without this dispute, I might still have been one of the hunters," he says. This struggle made him what he is today, a dolphin protector. It made him stop and convinced him to follow his conviction; that dolphins are too intelligent to be hunted like fish. Ever since he was young he has felt this very strongly, especially as he saw dolphins cry when they were killed. He was haunted by this image, every time he had to participate in the fishing.

Opinions are divided, but success is a fact

It is obvious that the opinions of the fishermen are divided on this issue. Some of the local fishermen are still telling newcomers to stay away from one particular boat in the harbour, while others have begun to support Mr. Ishii openly.

On the day we first set out to look for dolphins, it is his birthday. While he is handing out the life vests, his friends, who are also in the tourism business in Futo, conduct as the whole dolphin watch crowd sings to him. Mr. Ishii tells me, that when he started with dolphin watching trips three years ago, his colleagues were very suspicious about his business, and doubted that dolphins and whales could be spotted frequently enough. When we return from the cruise he points to the look-out point at the bay, which is filled with people "see, there they are, all the fishermen," Ishii says. "Some sit here every day and watch me when I return. They are counting my cruise participants and know exactly how much I charge for each passenger. And it is often more than they make; they admit this now." Mr. Ishii explains to me, that it is only during this last year that the business has been really successful. In the beginning he had to sell off some of his precious camera equipment to get his marketing going. This year he had more than a thousand visitors in June and July only.

Futo is an excellent area for dolphin and whale watching, having more species on a higher frequency than many other areas. The water is very deep, particularly outside Futo, so big pods of dolphins can move quite close to the shore. Both the bottlenose and the Pacific white-sided dolphin hunt here, as well as the striped dolphin and the pan tropical spotted dolphin. Moreover, several whales can be spotted, such as the sperm whale, the false killer whale and the killer whale. One day, only two kilometres from the shore we spotted three female sperm whales. They have been here for several months now, Mr. Ishii says. He spotted whales 54 times in August only.

However, during the whole week while I stayed there, not a single dolphin showed up. Mr. Ishii was concerned, he usually spots them frequently and the chance to see dolphins is normally 80%. This may be a result of the hunts a few days back, he said.

Dolphin parks continue to order brutal hunts

In my opinion, the dolphin parks are the biggest threat to the wild dolphins of Futo today. According to Japanese newspapers, 14 dolphins where captured for dolphin parks and 5 were killed for research in the Futo hunt. Mr. Ishii confirms that the information in the newspapers about the hunt is almost correct. During the hunt that lasted for a whole day and a night, many of the animals are injured or injure themselves when they panic. Furthermore, at least four more dolphins died of injuries. He himself saw one of them floating with its nose towards the surface and carried it ashore. Mr. Ishii does not believe that the fishermen are hunting for economical reasons; it is more a question of pride in their skills and traditions. The fishermen's union only pays each fisherman one hundred dollars a day for hunting dolphins for meat, while the dolphin parks pay the union 3800 dollars for a live dolphin!

The dolphin parks of Japan ordered the hunt in Futo. The parks seem to be the main reason for the pursuit hunts still being conducted in Futo today. One hunt can be very profitable for the union, assuming that they get enough dolphins to order - alive, in one single hunt. As to the rest of the pod, no one cares if they survive or not, not even the dolphin park trainers who participate in the hunt. The brutality, and the poorly regulated hunting methods did not stop entirely after the butchering in 1999, despite the demands and hopes from international sources. "To be accurate," Mr. Ishii says, "the union really wanted to end all the hunting, but could not do so entirely, because of economical reasons." Changes don't happen over night, he states. The protests have, however, had a big impact on the fishing industry; they have resulted in considerably lower fishing quotas and much fewer killings for meat. And only a few specimens are killed for research today (apart from those who die of injuries). The remaining challenge now is to put an end to the hunts conducted to accommodate the dolphin parks, as well as letting the visitors to the dolphin parks know what kind of business they support by their visit. The union of fisheries confirms that hunting is now finished. But only for this season...

I visited the nearest dolphin park, the Ito Dolphin Fantasy. A fine fantasy indeed, where the conditions are quite poor; a small pool in the harbour, where the constant noise and waste from the vessels reach the dolphins at all times. Here three of the dolphins from the recent hunt had been taken in to replace previous animals that died after only a few years in captivity. The distress of these yet untamed, lively creatures trying to avoid the walls of this small pool, was heartbreaking to see. And the trainers keep awfully quiet about their methods of captivating the animals.

Bright prospects for the future, interest worldwide increasing

Attitudes are changing and the future finally looks brighter for Mr. Ishii. Not many fishermen would openly admit anymore that they like dolphin meat. They have become aware of the high content of toxic matters, such as mercury, found in the meat nowadays. Two of Mr. Ishii's colleagues are already supporting him and assisting him with the cruises. With a big smile on his face he explains to me how the leader of the fishermen's union himself, who normally is promoting dolphin fishing - tells him that "now is the time for dolphin watching, so you have to succeed" And in private, the fishermen tell him the same thing.

Today Mr. Ishii is opening up the way towards dolphin and whale watching in his region. He has managed to prove, both locally and internationally, that this is a profitable business. Media from all over the world are still following his work, and he is becoming an interesting person for companies in the whale watching tourism industry. Only last month, the BBC made a film about him, and representatives from organizations both in the USA and in Canada visited him in order to maintain and to develop their cooperation with his business. The interest from the local hotel and tourism industry is also continually increasing. "It was the voices and protests from international sources that helped me when I was struggling alone against the union of fisheries." "But most of all, it is the dolphins themselves who have helped me, I believe so," Mr. Ishii adds with earnest. He wishes that we would continue to send him our support, the mission is not completed before all hunts are stopped. He hopes, one day, to see all the fishermen of the port in the whale and dolphin watching industry alongside him.

A few weeks later, as I am writing this report, I get a message from Mr. Ishii, saying that hundreds of Pacific white-sided dolphins have finally reappeared in Futo. That day, there was no vacancy on his vessel.

Jenny Wilhelms
Writer for Finns for the Whales Society

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