Dolphin death town gets whale zoo

TOKYO: It sounds like a sick joke. But in the town made infamous for its annual slaughter of hundreds of dolphins, tourists will now be able to swim and play with the mammals in a zoo near where the cull takes place.

Taiji, featured in the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, is to build a whale zoo. Yet despite the move, officials say the cull will continue.

Local media reports say the picturesque town on Japan's Pacific coast plans to populate the proposed 23-hectare marine mammal park with bottlenose dolphins and pilot and other small whales caught nearby.

The town, in the Higashimuro district of Wakayama, has been the target of international criticism for almost a decade over the hunt, in which up to 2000 animals are killed for their meat or sold to aquariums and marine parks.

The meat from a single animal can fetch up to 50,000 yen ($620), but aquariums have paid more than 10 million yen for certain specimens.

Taiji is one of four Japanese towns that hunts small cetaceans in coastal waters, but has been the focus of criticism. Hunters confuse the animals by banging metal poles on the side of their boats and then herd them into a cove before attacking them with spears and knives.

Outside a small number of coastal communities, few Japanese people eat dolphin meat, which tests have shown contains high levels of mercury. The government, which allows about 20,000 dolphins to be killed each year, acknowledges the meat is contaminated but says it is not dangerous unless consumed in large quantities.

Construction of the zoo is not expected to begin for three to five years while authorities try to secure funding and settle rights issues with fishermen who cultivate pearls and other marine products in the area. The zoo will feature beaches and mudflats, with its oceanside entrance in Moriura Bay closed off by a 430-metre net. ''We want to send out the message that the town is living together with whales,'' Jiji Press quoted Taiji's mayor, Kazutaka Sangen, as saying.

Guardian News & Media