Greek American focuses on plight of dolphins

The first impression you get when visiting Taiji in southeastern Japan’s Wakayama Prefecture is that it is a place where dolphins are loved and worshipped; there are sculptures, idols and photographs of them all over the town. Every year, however, Taiji is the site of a hunt during which thousands of the creatures are slaughtered. Until recently, this annual crime against the environment was known only to a handful of activists. Today, however, thanks to the efforts of Greek-American documentary director Louie Psihoyos, the fate of countless dolphins has been publicized around the world with his award-winning film «The Cove,» which received an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2010. It all began when Psihoyos met Ric O’Barry, the man who trained the dolphins for the popular 1960s TV series «Flipper.» In his mission to save dolphins from captivity, O’Barry made his way to Taiji, where he learned the awful truth of what happens to the dolphins fishermen in this city apparently love, and saw the heavily guarded cove in which the annual massacre takes place. He found a valuable ally in Psihoyos and his crew of colleagues when he felt he had to tell this story. «My troops comprised a special-effects wizard, a friend with military experience, divers and a scientist who set up a lab in the hotel where we were staying,» said Psihoyos. «The funny thing was that although we were all professionals, none of us had ever shot a film before. We where camouflaged and used thermal lenses, like the ones the army uses, as well as hidden cameras.» The release of «The Cove» prompted a wave of protest around the world, petitioning the Japanese government to outlaw the annual hunt. How did the Oscar affect you? The Oscar really helped us get our message across but it’s important to keep on promoting it. It’s not about me, my team or how many awards we win; it’s about stopping the slaughter in Taiji and respecting the environment. What exactly happens in Taiji? The cove is located in a national park that is closed off to the public. Many dolphins pass through these waters on part of their Pacific migratory route. The fishermen lie in waiting and when dolphins are spotted they start banging on the side of their boats to disorient them, as hearing is the primary sense of dolphins. They are herded into the cove and trapped in nets. Bottlenose dolphins that look like Flipper are singled out and sold [for commercial purposes] for 150,000-200,000 euros apiece, while the rest are killed with harpoons; 1 kilo of dolphin meat is worth about 600 dollars. The Japanese argue that dolphin hunting is a traditional pursuit. It’s a 77-year-old tradition [it started in 1933]; my mother is older than this tradition. Let’s not even get into animal rights and the brutal way in which these dolphins are killed. However, let’s look at human rights. When a tradition is harmful to thousands of unsuspecting consumers, then we need to rethink the whole thing. Dolphin meat contains five to 500 times more mercury than is permitted by Japanese law. Dolphins and whales are at the top of the food chain and full of mercury from the fish they eat. I realized that none of the local doctors ate fish because they considered it unsafe. Since for years my diet consisted solely of fish, they advised me to get tested and, as it turned out, my mercury levels were off the charts. This is an unbelievable story about which we know very little. Scientists and politicians are being pressured to keep quiet about the dangers of high mercury levels. The fishing industry, for obvious reasons, tries to keep the whole thing quiet, as does the energy industry since a major cause of high mercury levels in the environment is the burning of fossil fuels. It’s a problem that doesn’t concern only Japan but the entire planet. «The Cove» is a microcosm of what is happening in our oceans. And even if the Japanese don’t consume dolphin meat, they are still in danger, because, among other things, dolphin entrails are also used in fertilizers. So, you’re in danger even if you’re a vegetarian. What has changed since the release of the documentary? Hunting season ended in April and will start again in September, unless we can stop it. It appears that the national reserve officials have closed off the cove and are pressuring the fishermen to build an artificial cove in the open sea. So it seems they won’t be able to use it as a place to kill dolphins anymore. Until recently, dolphin meat was handed out in Taiji schools for free. It was a public relations trick aimed at showing the benefits of dolphin hunting. A health organization recently conducted free checkups on Taiji locals, revealing the high mercury levels, which led to the story being covered for the first time by the Japanese media. We couldn’t find Japanese movie theaters to play the movie at first, and even though 14 cinemas were interested, they backed down after being threatened by pro-hunt activists. Do you think of the documentary as a wake-up call? Yes, I think a movie has a lot of power. With a bomb you kill people, with a movie you create followers of a cause. I want «The Cove» to inspire a legion of activists, because we are losing our oceans and we are losing them fast. By 2100 there will be no more coral reefs. This generation and the next can change things before it is too late. We need activists, people who will consciously make an effort to change the world. Movies pass into our collective consciousness and can make a difference. People don’t read books and newspapers anymore, so a good documentary is the only way to reach people. (1) This interview first appeared in the May edition of Kathimerini’s environmental supplement Oiko.