TOKYO — A U.S. documentary film about dolphin hunting in Japan places its focus on the health risks that could arise from eating mercury-laden dolphin meat, relegating to the sidelines the aspect of animal rights protection and brushing aside claims of traditional customs.
But Japanese authorities and scientists are not convinced by the warning message in “The Cove” because dolphin meat is not regularly consumed in large quantities by people in Japan as it is a delicacy eaten only in some regional parts of the country.
Meanwhile, in the whaling town of Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, where most of the film is set, things appear to be business as usual for the most part, with one of the movie’s few repercussions being the increased sightings of foreign journalists in recent months.
“The Cove,” which has not yet been released in Japan, was shown to the general public in the country for the first time Oct. 21 as part of the annual Tokyo International Film Festival, with a sell-out crowd at a screening room with a capacity of more than 160 people.
After the screening, the film’s director Louis Psihoyos said he has placed emphasis on the human rights perspective of the issue, calling into question the harm that people have done to nature on a larger scale.
“I think it’s a stalemate, maybe at best, to try to argue animal rights issues,” Psihoyos said. “But arguing it with human rights is a way forward to win it for the Japanese people and the dolphins.”
The film explains that industrial pollution — namely the burning of fossil fuels — has caused dolphins to have high concentrations of mercury, and eating contaminated dolphin meat could be detrimental to one’s health.
He said dolphin meat with higher levels of mercury than allowed by Japanese standards has at times been found to be sold in Taiji and other parts of Japan, sometimes mislabeled as whale meat, which, is generally safer and considered to be of higher quality.
“I’m not telling Japanese people what to eat,” Psihoyos said. “But if I’m a vegetarian and my green beans have 5,000 times more mercury than allowed by Japanese law, I would hope you would come across our borders to tell me that what we’re eating is unhealthy.”
But Tetsuya Endo, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Chemistry and Toxicology at the Health Sciences University of Hokkaido, said the dangers of eating tuna are more worrisome considering the large amount of the fish consumed regularly in Japan.
“The mercury level (in dolphin meat) is high, and it would be dangerous if you eat a lot of it,” said Endo, who appears against his will in Psihoyos’s film. “But looking at the overall picture in Japan, what is more important is to call attention to tuna consumption.”
He said the movie makes an unwarranted connection between the mercury poisoning issue and dolphin hunting, adding footage of him explaining that he found high levels of mercury in dolphin meat he bought in Taiji was used without his permission. His image was pixelized in the Tokyo screening.
A Fisheries Agency official pointed out that dolphin hunting in Taiji makes up only about 10 percent of the number of dolphins the Japanese government allows fishermen to hunt every year — the total standing in recent years at a little more than 20,000.
He also said dolphin meat has been consumed traditionally not only in some regions of Japan but also in many other parts of the world.
On attempts to defend the Taiji fishermen’s dolphin hunt by referring to tradition, however, Psihoyos brings the argument back to the human rights angle.
“When your tradition gets in the way of human rights, then the tradition argument falls apart. It’s everyone’s human right to eat healthy food,” he said.
In Taiji, people have been taking the commotion involving their hometown calmly, with no noticeable changes in people’s daily lives.
“As far as a response (to the movie) is concerned, we do get phone calls, some people expressing opposition to us and some cheering us on,” said an official at the Taiji town office, adding the callers are mostly Japanese.
On the move by the Australian town of Broome to suspend its sister-city status with Taiji for about seven weeks over the dolphin killing exposed in “The Cove,” another town official said, “We haven’t received any formal notice about the suspension or its reversal…so for us it’s like nothing really happened.”
The official acknowledged that the town office received over the weekend a fax from Psihoyos addressed to Mayor Kazutaka Sangen offering to screen the movie in Taiji, but said “there is no way to respond” as it does not provide specifics such as when, where, and how he wants to conduct the screening.
Despite the nonchalant mood in Taiji, Richard O’Barry, known for capturing and training the dolphins used in the 1960s U.S. TV series “Flipper” before becoming an activist to free dolphins from captivity, has said things are “changing dramatically” in the town.
O’Barry, who is shown in “The Cove” as an activist who informs Psihoyos about the dolphin killing in a secret cove in Taiji, reported during an online chat Sept. 29, “When we were at the cove yesterday, it was calm and peaceful.
“They are still killing pilot whales, but they’ve stopped killing dolphins. That’s a huge, huge thing. Things are changing fast, thanks to ‘The Cove’,” he said.