Children in Taiji often wolf down tasty school lunches of short-finned pilot whale. Deep-fried dolphin and sweet-and-sour minke whale are also occasional cafeteria offerings in this small fishing town, where sea mammals have long been considered a reliable source of protein. Taiji (pop. 3,600) is proudly regarded as the birthplace of Japan's 400-year-old whaling industry. But Hisato Ryono, a local assemblyman whose uncle used to work as a commercial whaler, is having second thoughts about schools serving his sons flippered fare. Not because he is finally bowing to international opposition to the hunting of dolphins, which scientists rank among the most intelligent animals. Or because he is suddenly horrified by Taiji's annual dolphin cull, which starts in September and ends in so much bloodshed that the area's cerulean coves literally turn red.
Ryono is up in arms because recent tests show that dolphin meat sold in local supermarkets has mercury levels up to 29 times the acceptable maximum set by the Japanese Health Ministry. But these alarming results have not led the town government to ban dolphin meat from school cafeterias. Quite the contrary: Taiji officials are pushing ahead with plans to finish building a $2.9 million processing plant, roughly half of which will be reserved for butchering cetaceans--which include dolphins as well as whales. The mayor has expressed hopes that the new facility will lead to more sea-mammal hunting and more schools in Japan serving these creatures for lunch.
Each year some 2,000 cetaceans are speared or bludgeoned to death in the waters near Taiji, accounting for nearly a tenth of the national haul. Some of the meat is consumed by humans. (No, it doesn't taste like chicken. Think gamier, chewier beef.) Some is used in pet food or animal feed. But much of it ends up frozen in the national whale-meat inventory, which contains thousands of tons of excess food.
Nevertheless, Japan is eager to expand its whaling industry. Coastal hunting of smaller cetaceans such as dolphins and pilot whales is not regulated by the International Whaling Commission. And Tokyo has repeatedly lobbied the global organization to allow it to resume coastal hunting of bigger species like minke whale. These still make their way onto Japanese dinner plates thanks to an exemption in an international whaling moratorium, passed in 1986, that allows larger species to be killed in the name of research.
Given the country's appetite for whale, it's not surprising that the new mercury studies have divided the tight-knit community of Taiji. "If whaling disappears, our town disappears," says Katsutoshi Mihara, the affable town-council chief. He casts doubt on the accuracy of the mercury tests, which were commissioned by Ryono and another Taiji assemblyman after rumors circulated that locally caught pilot-whale meat might be tainted. "Look at me," says Mihara, 69. "I'm made of whale, head to toe, and I'm fine."
Ryono used to feel the same way until he learned about the sky-high mercury levels. "I thought eating this meat was fine because it is a Japanese tradition," he says. "But protecting our culture is not worth endangering our children's health." Junichiro Yamashita, the other member of the town council who opposes serving dolphin in school lunches, believes a silent majority supports his cause but is reluctant to speak publicly. "At the last town meeting, there was a lot of pressure from fishermen not to publicize the mercury results," he says. Some are afraid of losing their jobs if Taiji takes dolphin off the menu. But Yamashita is pushing an idea that, at least for the long term, may be a more palatable solution: "Instead of relying on whaling, we could shift the town's economy to whale-watching."