“I really feel we only have a couple decades to turn around what’s going on in the oceans.

— Louie Psihoyos

The photos depicting peaceful inlets of coastal water are of Taiji, a little known whaling town on the Pacific coast of Japan’s Kii Peninsula in Wakayama Prefecture. The region is known as Kumano, and is a world heritage site, renown for its pilgrim trail and striking temples set in both ancient Cedar forests and along pristine coastline, such as this. The jagged asymmetry of the windswept trees perched on jutting outcroppings of rocks, themselves constantly battered by the sea, feels like something out of the Ukiyo-e artist Hiroshige’s well-known repertoire of wood cuts.

Because it is spread over an entire peninsula (the Unesco people couldn’t name just one spot a World Heritage Site) the area is a well-kept secret, even amongst the Japanese. With the overpowering Mt. Fuji, the Nagano Alps and other monumental landscapes to compete with, it’s easy to see why. After making the out-of-the-way journey, most Japanese will readily admit that Kumano, and Taiji in particular, with its mixture of mist-shrouded mountains and craggy cliffs, is one of the most startlingly beautiful views of the sea in Japan.

Yet every September when a group of fishermen emerge from Taiji’s sheltering coves to catch the yearly dolphin migration in order to supply the world’s aquariums with fresh dolphins (at around 200,000USD a head), these picturesque waters turn from cobalt blue to blood red in a matter of hours. How? Why? It depends on who you ask.

The Cove - Interview with Louie Psihoyos

Louie Psihoyos © Manny Santiago

Last October, HESO asked Louie Psihoyos founder of OPS (Oceanic Preservation Society) and director of The Cove. Referring to the annual slaughter of approximately 2000 dolphins in the waters of Taiji, he said Japan is “a microcosm of the oceans.

“I really feel,” he continued, “we only have a couple decades to turn around what’s going on in the oceans. This generation coming up and maybe the next one are going to be the only generations to be able to fix this before it’s too late, before well, just break out all the champagne and drink it because…there’s not going to be anything left for anybody else…”

HESO: So this is larger than just some proud fisherman slaughtering dolphins for some cultural reasons?

Louie Psihoyos: When the cultural tradition argument gets in the way of human rights, your argument falls apart. If we acidify the oceans just a bit more we lose the coral reefs and anything with a carbonate structure just dissolves. Plankton creates two out of every three breaths you take. It creates more oxygen than all of the rain forests combined. So little things like acidity going up have huge impacts on future generations. If we can’t win this small fight in Taiji, how can we win the bigger fight?”

How can we indeed.

The truth is that we are already—right now—in the midst of a massive extinction. The funny, but not funny at all, part is that most are of species we had no idea existed in the first place. Click To Tweet

Spreading Poison – Taiji’s Mercurial Defiance of the Oceans

“Ocean acidification is a growing global problem that will intensify with continued CO2 emissions and has the potential to change marine ecosystems and affect benefits to society.” said a June report on Ocean Acidification for the National Research Council and Congress.

Jon Ellis, an avid diver and underwater photographer might phrase the panel’s comments differently. This from his recent trip to the Great Barrier Reef:

While it’s hard not to buy into the popular notion of having repeatedly soiled our own diapers, to the point of ruination, it’s also hard not to applaud what a dedicated few are still doing to in trying to race the clock to help stem the tide (pun intended) of the current big biological catastrophe.

“Things like the BP oil spill in the gulf, while completely terrible—and avoidable mind you—are really just the fetid frosting on the rotten cake, so to speak.” says a San Francisco environmental activist wishing to remain anonymous. “The truth is that we are already—right now—in the midst of a massive extinction. The funny, but not funny at all, part is that most are of species we had no idea existed in the first place.”

In The Sixth Extinction, Richard Leakey and Robert Lewin say that the current one—differing from the previous five—is a patently human-caused event. Paleontologist Niles Eldredge believes that there can be little doubt amongst logical people that humans are the direct cause of ecosystem stress and species destruction. “Transformation of the landscape, overexploitation of species, pollution, and introduction of alien species explosion of human population, especially in the post-Industrial Revolution years of the past two centuries, coupled with the unequal distribution and consumption of wealth on the planet, is the underlying cause of the Sixth Extinction.”

Louie Psihoyos and OPS’s next documentary film, Racing Extinction, will focus on this mass extinction event, but—if it’s possible—in a positive way. Can pollution, habitat loss, overfishing, global climate change and ocean acidification be overcome?

The truth is that the reef really isn’t in that good condition. Even in areas where people rarely dive there is a lot of dead coral around. It’s true that it appears to be recovering – new growth dots the outcrops of dead coral, but… Click To Tweet

Save coral reefs, which constitute less than one percent of the ocean’s space, but are home to more than 25 percent of its fish, and you can save humanity. Kill them and you kill us. How are we planning on saving them from bleaching—a whitening of corals that occurs when symbiotic algae living within coral tissues are expelled? Bleached coral may recover over time or simply die out altogether. The truth is, as Bill Bryson puts it in A Short History of Nearly Everything, “We are astoundingly, sumptuously, radiantly ignorant of life beneath the seas.”

Some recent bleaching events are the result of a rise in sea surface temperatures in the Andaman Sea—an area that includes the coasts of Myanmar, Thailand, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and northwestern Indonesia. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Hotspots website, temperatures in the region peaked in late May at more than 93° F (34° C), while long-term averages for the area are around 86°. The hottest summer on record is producing record temperatures in the oceans as well, a place that oceanographers admittedly know very little about.

Something we do know is that the seas around Australia’s 20,000 miles of coastline are notoriously stingy. Enough so as to exclude them from the top fifty fishing nations, according to Tim Flannery’s The Future Eaters. Magnesium Photo’s Matt Greenfield, an avid diver, recently photographed sharks around the Great Barrier Reef off the east coast—one of the only places in their coastal waters where sea-life is truly abundant.

Finning sharks, dredging the ocean floor, selling tainted dolphin meat as whale: the animal rights argument rightfully doesn’t stop nearby Japan from scouring the world for what the Aussies—despite 9 million miles of territorial waters—have to import. Japan’s very long and extremely well protected fisheries arm—accounting for more than 15 percent of the worldwide catch—is often openly hostile, misleading and willfully ignorant toward their own customers and any such international pressure citing anything, even the human rights argument. Tsukiji Fish Market in central Tokyo, the country’s seafood nerve center, is the largest in the world and the only one of many fish markets which have misrepresented dolphin and other cetacean meat for whale meat. Their spokespeople seem to have a preternatural gift for keeping the masses ignorant of the unsustainable truth, flouting international law and deflecting criticism from abroad.

Agree to Neither Agree Nor Disagree

“Most Japanese people are completely unaware of this (Dall’s Porpoise) hunt – it’s the largest direct hunt of any whale, dolphin and porpoise in the world and is putting these animals at risk while producing hundreds of tonnes of toxic meat for human consumption.”

Clare Perry EIA Senior Campaigner

Meanwhile, many Japanese Fisheries apologists will counter with statements like, “…in a world where we eat millions of chickens, cows and pigs, where we seem intent on plucking every salmon, cod, oyster and shrimp out of the ocean, is there something morally wrong about hunting a marine mammal like a dolphin?”

Not morally, but concerning consumer’s health, yes. Based on 1972 World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations, Japan’s fisheries and Health Ministry (JMHLW) have been ignoring the self-imposed maximum contamination levels in seafood products of 0.3µg/g (parts per million – ppm) Methylmercury (MeHg) and 0.4ppm Mercury (Hg). Recently tested Dall’s porpoise samples (from a separate hunt in northern Japan) being 1.02µg/g, almost three-and-a-half times the recommended limit, often more (Source: EIA-International). The giant Blue-fin Tuna, known in sushi bars around the world as maguro, are regularly toxic as well. In fact any fish, or ocean going mammal over a certain size and age is likely a repository for dangerous levels of Mercury and any other heavy metals dumped in the ocean over the past 60 years.

Lucky then that not many are actually eating it. Certainly not the Japanese. According to the Guardian, of the 1,873 tons of whale meat processed in 2001, 70 tons went unsold. As a recent poll suggests, some 95 percent of the 1,047 respondents reportedly ate whale meat “very rarely”, had not eaten whale meat in a “long time”, or ate it “not at all”. 34.5 percent of the poll’s participants thought commercial whaling should resume, and 39.2 percent “neither agreed nor disagreed” with the idea.

One Japanese scholar with an opinion, Jun Morikawa of Rakuno Gakuen University in Sapporo, argues that whaling’s popularity—and therefore the fishing of all cetaceans—is largely a myth promulgated by certain governmental bodies and major players within the whaling industry. Though it seems that as long as 39.2 percent of the world “neither agree nor disagree” with any of this, our oceans will be in trouble.

HESO would like to thank Louie Psihoyos from OPS and Clare Perry from EIA-International for their cooperation in creating a dialogue of openness.