TAIJI, JAPAN (AP) - The tiny seaside town in Japan whose annual dolphin slaughter gained notoriety through the gruesome Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove” hosted an unprecedented meeting Tuesday between local officials and foreign environmentalists.
But the carefully organized event in Taiji was given a jolt just before its scheduled start when Ric O’Barry, the dolphin savior star of the movie and a leading global dolphin activist, said he would not participate due to “severe restrictions on the Japanese and international media.”
Taiji’s hunt each year draws a motley group of protesters who record the butchery and occasionally scuffle with local fishermen. This season _ the first since the Oscar was awarded _ the attention has been particularly intense, and the usually unresponsive town leaders agreed to a discussion at the town’s community center.
The meeting continued with several other leading activists while O’Barry headed off on the short walk to the ocean cove where the town conducts its dolphin butchery, taking a large media contingent with him.
The remaining activists, including members of Sea Shepherd, a strident conservation group that has repeatedly clashed with Japanese whalers at sea, sat down across from Mayor Kazutaka Sangen and other town officials, many of whom are proud descendants of whalers in Taiji, the small town of 3,500 that was the birthplace of Japanese whaling centuries ago.
O’Barry appeared to be upset with the tight restrictions on the event, which included banning some major news outlets, pre-submitted questions, and portions that were not allowed to be recorded. Atsushi Nakahira, a political extremist who was the main organizer, was visibly angered at the development, at one point ordering news organizations including The Associated Press to leave.
Even before it started, foreign participants said there was little hope for any solid breakthroughs.
“It is a huge waste of time,” said Sea Shepherd member Scott West, who has been in the area for nearly two months to monitor the hunts. He said he would attend because just the fact that both sides had agreed to meet was a small step forward.
Michael Bailey, an American filmmaker that was one of the original Greenpeace members, was more upbeat, tying the meeting to the recent U.N. conference on biodiversity in nearby Nagoya, where members agreed to expand protected areas for animals and plants.
“Here’s a great opportunity for the people of Japan and the government of Japan to implement what was agreed to at the conference in Nagoya,” he said.
Taiji fishermen kill up to 2,000 dolphins a year, about 10 percent of Japan’s total. The town has long drawn the collective ire of activists. Unlike in other parts of the country, entire pods are chased into a sheltered cove, where some animals are picked for sale to aquariums and others are slaughtered close to shore.
Activists say about 100 have been killed so far this year, and West said several dozen more have been sold as show animals. The town does not release exact numbers, although the national Fisheries Agency publishes yearly figures by region _ in 2008, the prefecture caught 1,857 dolphins.
The hunts are legal under Japanese law and the animals are not endangered, but protesters decry the butchery and question the safety of dolphin meat, which can be high in mercury and other toxins.
This year’s protests have included a local English teacher-cum-activist who swam out to a group of dolphins set for slaughter and gave them a ball to play with, a European group called “The Black Fish,” that claimed they cut nets to try to free some captured animals, and a blog kept by West’s 16 year-old-daughter of her experiences in Taiji during the hunt.
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