Animal welfare campaigners have condemned the killing of a trapped minke whale off the coast of Taiji, a town in Japan best known for its annual dolphin cull.
The young whale, which had been trapped inside nets since 24 December, was killed with what appeared to be an exploding harpoon early on Monday morning before being taken ashore wrapped in blue tarpaulin, according to the Humane Society International (HSI).
Ren Yabuki, an animal rights activist who filmed the whale throughout its 19-day ordeal, captured the moment it was killed. “Oh, no! The fishermen have killed the minke whale now,” Yabuki can be heard saying as he continued to film. “I’m so sorry … oh, no.”
HSI said it was “devastated” and “horrified” by the whale’s death, days after it and other animal welfare groups had called for its release.
“We feel saddened by this dreadful outcome. It is soul-destroying to think that by merely lifting the net three weeks ago, this poor animal could have been swimming free instead of being trapped in prolonged distress only to be harpooned and butchered for commercial sale in local markets,” HSI’s animal welfare programme manager, Georgie Dolphin, said in a statement.
The local fishing cooperative said last week it would attempt to free the whale, which measured about four or five metres in length, but added that the animal’s size and strong tidal currents could make that impossible.
Yabuki, the director of the Japanese NGO Life Investigation Agency, said he had witnessed fishers make only one half-hearted attempt to free the animal soon after it became trapped.
Japan abandoned its “scientific” whaling programme in the Antarctic after years of international pressure, but resumed commercial whaling in its own waters in July 2019. This year Japanese whalers will be permitted to catch up to 383 large whales, including 171 minkes, HSI said.
“While we mourn the tragic passing of this animal, we know that a similar brutal end comes to many more whales off the coast of Japan every year. They are the silent victims of Japan’s continued commercial whaling” Dolphin said. “What was rare was for it to be witnessed.”
Taiji, located in a remote part of the Pacific coast, attracted global attention after the 2009 release of the award-winning documentary The Cove, which followed fishers as they pursued dolphins in the town’s annual “drive hunts”.
Some of the animals are spared and sold to aquariums and marine parks for huge sums, while others are slaughtered for their meat.
Taiji’s fishers have defended the dolphin cull, telling the Guardian that hunting cetaceans was part of the town’s heritage and a vital source of income for the local economy.