The popular 1960's television series "Flipper" may hold your image of the largely beloved dolphin. But in some parts of the world, dolphins are increasingly hunted for food and sport.
According to recent statistics from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, more than 20,000 small whales and dolphins are killed each year in Japan alone.
The Earthtrust Organization said that other areas of the world, including Chile, Turkey and the Faroe Islands, are also involved in dolphin hunting. However, the Japanese method of hunting, commonly known as drive hunting, is the most inhumane, the group said.
This method, in which dolphins are forced into shallow areas where they are often brutally killed with knives and spears, is most predominantly used by fisherman in the Japanese villages of Taji and Futo. Uncontrolled catch quotas in these villages reach nearly 3,000 in Taji and 2,380 in Futo each season.
Although traditionally hunted for their meat, the Conservation Society said that dolphins in Japan are used for fertilizer and pet food. The drives, the Whale Dolphin Conservation Society argues, "are conducted as a form of pest control."
An international consortium of scientists and zoo aquarium officials released a report this week condemning the hunts.
Citing various studies about the mental, emotional and social characteristics of dolphins, the group, which includes scientists from the New York Aquarium and Emory University, among other organizations, argued that dolphins are "on par with great apes and humans as far as their mental and emotional capacities for pain and suffering."
Dolphins have the largest brains relative to body size of any living species of animal, a fact that many scientists believe relates to the strength of their cognitive abilities.
The consortium, which is headed by Diana Reiss, senior research scientist and director of the New York Aquarium's Marine Mammal Research program, issued a joint statement that said: "The methods of slaughter employed on these highly intelligent and sentient beings constitute a level of cruelty that any nation should find intolerable."
The dolphin hunts have been condemned by the International Whaling Commission, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the U.S. Association of Zoos and Aquariums. However, all these requests, the consortium noted, have been ignored by authorities who supervise the dolphin hunts.
Hoping to draw the attention of the Japanese government and the rest of the world, the group said it would send a statement to the prime minister of Japan citing statistics and scientific findings regarding dolphins and the hunts. A Web page displaying this information (www.actfordolphins.org) also includes a public petition bearing 250 signatures from scientists across the world.
The Japanese Embassy said it was not prepared to comment on the issue.