Documentary inspires Clearwater couple to speak out against Japanese dolphin hunting

12/23/10 Kate Bradshaw
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The Oscar-winning film The Cove highlights the capture and killing of dolphins in the Japanese fishing village of Taiji. The documentary set off a wave of outrage across the globe. It has even prompted a few Tampa Bay area residents to head there next week.

Tim Burns said his wife urged him to see the film, and come September they were on a plane to Japan.

"We're both aquatic people, I've grown up in the ocean my entire life, so we instantly got online because anything I see the first thing I have to do is I have to research it and know all sides of all stories. So we got online and by the time we were done, a couple of hours doing research online we were actually shopping for plane tickets. We were like, wow, this has to stop."

The Cove portrays Taiji’s dolphin industry and the Japanese government’s efforts to protect it. Fishing boats reportedly lure scores of dolphins to the notorious cove, where they capture the fittest for sale to marine amusement parks. According to the film, they kill those that don’t make the cut and sell their meat in Japan, often labeled as whale meat. This past September – during their first Japan visit – Burns said he had initially hoped to convince the village’s residents that they can make their money in a different way.

"The trip originally was supposed to be straight to Taiji. We were going to fly into Osaka, take a train to Taiji, it was supposed to be a really positive message that we were trying to give Taiji. We wanted Taiji people to see there's so much money in tourism. That you've got 26 fishermen here making all the money, which is mostly government subsidized, and not bringing a ton of money back into your own community. That we can bring you a lot of money with tourism."

He said that was curtailed after his travel companion, Cove star and former dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry, received death threats.

"From a militant group that was essentially hired by the 26 Taiji fishermen and their co-op, so we decided it's not safe to go to Taiji, so we're going to go to Tokyo. We got a meeting with the American ambassador in Japan. and we tried to do a big news media blitz."

So they went to Tokyo and did some outreach. There, too, they were met with opposition.

"I won't go so far as to say I ever felt my life was in danger, no. The one day that we did experience the militia in Tokyo, they have these militant looking trucks and they all stood on top of their trucks, they had about 20 of them lined up on the street in front of the hotel that we were staying at, and they had bullhorns talking about the bombs that we dropped on them, we need to go home, and all that kind of stuff."

Burns said many people in Tokyo were surprised to find out they were actually eating dolphin meat instead of whale. Burns is president of a Tampa-based dietary supplement company, and Jim Powers, who plans to travel to Japan next month, is their company’s CEO. A Japanese scientist interviewed in The Cove first expressed concern about the high concentration of mercury in dolphin meat, but he later said his comments were misrepresented in the film. Powers said there’s overwhelming evidence showing harmful mercury levels in dolphins.

"It's not just his words that were in the movie, there's many others. So, obviously now, people that represent some of what's going on there have taken his comment and kind of blown it up. But that's one of very many people that tested the meat over and over, so I think that's really irrelevant."

Burns said there’s another aspect of the practice - the capture of some dolphins for human amusement. Burns said each animal can fetch up to 300 grand, and Americans can use their buying power to help end the practice.

"We don't eat dolphin, but we buy the dolphins that cause the slaughter so you put a dolphin in captivity which is a self aware animal, you put this animal in captivity here in the United States and we're supporting that cause. That animal here in the United States now has to be pumped up full of anti-depressants or it's going to jump out of the tank and die."

Critics of The Cove say the film ignores that the local economy depends on the practice, and that it presents a one-sided view of the use of dolphin meat in Japanese culture – which some claim is no different than Westerners’ use of cattle. Powers said he sees a huge difference between dolphins and cows.

"A dolphin and a cow. You really don't want to look at the cow as a lower level of animal, but a dophin is a higher being. It's a mammal, it communicates."

Burns said he spoke to many people who had no idea that dolphins are being slaughtered off the coast of Taiji, but were appalled when they heard about it. He said the goal now is to spread the word.

"The main goal is we have to continue the documentation. People have to be there, we have to continue the documentation. The word is not out in Japan yet. The movement is just starting. We need to make sure that the movement continues in Japan. So we're going to document it and share everything we can share with anybody in Japan that will listen."

Dolphin hunting season lasts from September through February. Burns and his wife travel to Japan Monday, Powers will join them in January. Fishermen there have reportedly put up tarps to conceal what goes on in the cove. For more information about efforts to halt dolphin hunting in Taiji, visit:

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