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Japan’s seas run red in annual porpoise hunt

THE fishing boats making their way into the port of Otsuchi , in northern Japan, seem an innocent enough sight, even picturesque – but in their wake is a sea stained red by the world’s single largest direct slaughter of cetaceans.

Every year, approximately 15,000 Dall’s porpoises are killed, out of sight and largely out of mind, in a hand harpoon hunt repeatedly described by International Whaling Commission (IWC) scientists as “clearly unsustainable”.

EIA witnessed around 40 Dall’s porpoises being landed at Otsuchi market on March 9 and a further 20 porpoises this morning. Market workers reacted angrily to attempts to film the porpoises, saying that they did not want any criticism of the hunt and the Fisheries Agency would not like it if they were filmed.

Once landed, the catch is processed and sold in supermarkets and fish markets across Japan , sometimes illegally mislabelled as “whale meat” to increase its value.

And unwitting consumers are not only being misled as to the source of the meat; like other small cetaceans, Dall’s porpoises carry high levels of a range of dangerous pollutants, including mercury and methylmercury. Some dolphins are so toxic that experts have suggested just one small meal could result in acute mercury poisoning.

London-based campaign group the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) travelled to Otsuchi, in the prefecture of Iwate , to monitor and raise awareness of the hunt in a bid to ensure its grossly detrimental impact on marine conservation and consumer health does not continue to be overlooked.

“Most Japanese people are completely unaware of this 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,” warned Clare Perry, EIA investigator and coordinator of an international coalition of groups concerned about cetacean hunting and related health risks.

In the coastal area of Iwate, large quantities of Dall’s porpoise are sold cheaply, labelled as dolphin. A shop assistant in a supermarket in Yamada told EIA that it was a popular local dish.

However, the biggest market for Dall’s porpoises lies in the south of Japan , particularly in the Shizuoka and Kyushu areas. EIA investigators have been told by courier companies transporting Dall’s porpoises to southern Japan that the meat is sold “all over Japan as minke meat”. According to a worker at the company: “It’s no big secret, everyone in the industry knows this”. These findings have been backed by independent DNA analyses. Mislabelling is a direct infringement of Japanese law, but enforcement is non-existent.

Between 2001 and 2007, EIA investigators made 35 sample purchases of Dall’s porpoise meat and blubber in the cities of Hokkaido , Shizuoka , Osaka , Shimonoseki and Fukuoka . Independent testing showed average mercury levels in the products to be 1.57ppm, almost four times higher than Japan ’s regulatory limit of 0.4ppm. The highest mercury level of 6.93ppm was found in a sample of porpoise head meat, sold for sashimi.

Scientists have established a strong link between mercury in cetacean products and a variety of human diseases and medical conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, arteriosclerosis, immune subsystem suppression and hypertension. Threats to children include autism, Asperger’s Syndrome and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

“Despite the overwhelming scientific findings that coastal cetacean products can pose a risk to human health they remain on sale throughout Japan , and are even distributed to some Japanese schools as part of the obligatory school lunch programme,” said Perry.

For at least a quarter of a century, the Dall’s porpoise has suffered the same appalling over-exploitation that caused the collapse and near-extinction of so many great whale populations around the world. The IWC is currently in the process of negotiating a ‘deal’ between whaling countries and non-whaling countries – but the fate of these smaller cetaceans is not being considered.

“Countries that claim to be interested in the conservation of cetaceans need to be raising this issue at the IWC,” said Perry. “It is unacceptable that the IWC is preparing to give Japan commercial whaling quotas, without addressing its slaughter of up to 20,000 Dall’s porpoises and other coastal dolphins and whales each year.”




All video footage and stills are for one time use only, no archive use.



1.  Since catch records began in the early 1960s, more than half a million Dall’s porpoises have been deliberately killed in Japan ’s coastal waters. It is the largest direct hunt of any whale, dolphin or porpoise species in the world.

2. The Dall’s porpoise is named after William Healey Dall, who collected the first specimen off Alaska in the late 19th century. Dall’s and all other porpoises belong to a family called Phocoenidae. Like dolphins, they belong to the sub-order Odontocete (toothed whales), which in turn belongs to the order Cetacea, including all whales, dolphins and porpoises.

3. Large scale hunting of Dall’s porpoises has taken place in Japanese waters for about 50 years. The average annual kill was between 5,000-10,000 animals during the 1960s and ’70s, but this rose to more than 40,000 after the IWC ban on commercial whaling in 1986. The ban saved many whale species from certain extinction, but unwittingly resulted in a new threat to Dall’s porpoises when Japan ’s whaling companies turned to it to replace the minke whales they were no longer allowed to hunt. Dall’s porpoises were also traded to the south of Japan where over-hunting of striped dolphins had left a market demand for dolphin-type meat.

4. Based on 1972 World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations, Japan’s Health Ministry (JMHLW) set a consumption limit (PTWI) of 170µg of methylmercury (MeHg) in a 50kg person per week and blanket maximum contamination levels in seafood products of 0.3µg/g (parts per million – ppm) MeHg and 0.4ppm mercury (Hg). However whales and dolphins are excluded from these safety limits.

5. A study published by Japanese scientists in August 2005 analysed 160 samples of small cetacean products sold on Japanese markets for human consumption, including nine samples of Dall’s porpoise meat. The average MeHg concentration over all Dall’s porpoise samples was 1.02µg/g, almost three-and-a-half times the recommended limit.

6. Eight Dall’s porpoise blubber products analysed by Japanese scientists commissioned by EIA revealed high PCB levels, with one product purchased in Shizuoka , near Tokyo , having a concentration of 4ppm, a startling eight times higher than the regulatory level of 0.5ppm.


Interviews and video footage are available on request: please contact Clare Perry, EIA Senior Campaigner, at or telephone +81 (0)90-8453-8240.


Environmental Investigation Agency
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London N1 0NY
Tel: +44 207 354 7960
Fax: +44 207 354 7961