Tag Archives: blackfish

Tilikum, the whale made famous in the film Blackfish, has died at SeaWorld

12000 pound Tilikum, no tank is big enough.
12000 pound Tilikum.

His iconic life represented all that was wrong about keeping these majestic whales in tanks. Rest in peace, Tilikum.
 SeaWorld’s media release:

The Life and Care Of Tilikum At SeaWorld

The SeaWorld family is deeply saddened to announce that one of its most well-known orcas, Tilikum, has passed away. Tilikum passed away early this morning, January 6, surrounded by the trainers, care staff and veterinarians that provided him around-the-clock world-class care.
Like all older animals, Tilikum had faced some very serious health issues. While the official cause of death will not be determined until the necropsy is completed, the SeaWorld veterinarians were treating a persistent and complicated bacterial lung infection. The suspected bacteria is part of a group of bacteria that is found in water and soil both in wild habitats and zoological settings.
Tilikum’s veterinarians and caretakers delivered various treatment regimens over the course of this illness, which consisted of, among other things, combinations of anti-inflammatories, anti-bacterials, anti-nausea medications, hydration therapy and aerosolized antimicrobial therapy.
While today is a difficult day for the SeaWorld family, it’s important to remember that Tilikum lived a long and enriching life while at SeaWorld and inspired millions of people to care about this amazing species.
Tilikum’s life will always be inextricably connected with the loss of our dear friend and colleague, Dawn Brancheau.  While we all experienced profound sadness about that loss, we continued to offer Tilikum the best care possible, each and every day, from the country’s leading experts in marine mammals.
“Tilikum had, and will continue to have, a special place in the hearts of the SeaWorld family, as well as the millions of people all over the world that he inspired,” said President & CEO of SeaWorld Joel Manby. “My heart goes out to our team who cared for him like family.”
Tilikum became a part of SeaWorld’s family 25 years ago. Estimated to be about 36 years old, Tilikum was near the high end of the average life expectancy for male killer whales according to an independent scientific review.
Tilikum was not born at or collected by SeaWorld. He came to us from Sealand of the Pacific in Canada. SeaWorld has not collected a whale from the wild in nearly 40 years, and this past March we announced the end of the orca breeding program effectively making the whales currently at SeaWorld the last generation of orcas under human care.

SeaWorld keeps its word; Landmark legislation to help captive whales is one step closer in California

Southern Resident orcas J54 and mother, J28. Photo by Dave Ellifrit.
(Southern Resident orcas J54 and mother, J28. Photo by Dave Ellifrit).

In an unprecedented move, today the California Assembly Water, Parks & Wildlife committee voted twelve to one in support of legislation what will permanently ban the breeding of captive orcas in California.
AB 2305 will not only prohibit the breeding of captive orcas, it will allow only educational displays of the existing animals.  Dr. Naomi Rose from the Animal Welfare Institute, former SeaWorld orca trainer John Hargrove (featured in Blackfish) and Kim Ventre from Voice of the Orcas as well as many others spoke in support. The bill was presented by Assemblyman Richard Bloom.
Assembly bill AB will make sure that SeaWorld's pledge to stop breeding killer whales will also apply to any other companies that may develop in the future.
Assembly bill AB 2305 will make sure that SeaWorld’s pledge to stop breeding killer whales will also apply to any other companies in California, ensuring that SeaWorld’s promise won’t come back to bite them if a competing park decided to throw their hat in the ring. To that end, this legislation is actually good for SeaWorld – if they can’t breed, neither can anyone else if the bill makes all the way through the Senate.

SeaWorld’s decision to stop breeding killer whales was admittedly difficult, but today they showed their commitment to follow through by not fighting the proposed legislation in California to ban orca breeding in captivity.

SeaWorld was represented by Pete Montgomery who testified that SeaWorld has no position on the bill, and underscored SeaWorld’s recent pledge to stop breeding killer whales and to make other significant changes in the care and maintenance of marine mammals.
SeaWorld’s CEO, Joel Manby, openly attributed their decision in part to the inevitability of local state legislation that would force them to stop breeding the whales anyway.
Last month the San Diego Union Tribune wrote:

While the tide of public opinion concerning orcas clearly was turning, fueled in part by the 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” Manby said, were legislative efforts in California to outlaw captive breeding. He cited a California Coastal Commission decision that would require SeaWorld to end the breeding of killer whales if it wanted to expand its orca tanks, a project that it has since abandoned.

“I’m quite certain legislation in California would come against us,” he said. “Once something is illegal and moved east, it would be very difficult to change that trend so we decided we needed to get ahead of this because as you know, SeaWorld has an incredible tale to tell, but the orca issue is a barrier between our story and a growing audience.”

The presentation and discussion of the bill was recorded by Haze Sommer, who has shared it here:

SeaWorld announces the end of orca captivity and a partnership with the Humane Society

New Zealand orcas are known to beach themselves as they hunt for rays, but it is unlikely that an entire pod would die this way.
Orca rescue in New Zealand

Today’s announcement is inspiring, not just in that SeaWorld will end the captivity of orcas in their parks, but in that they have recognized that they can do much to save the oceans and the animal life there.
Joy and gratitude is tumbling from everyone, and not just from animal lovers. SeaWord has shown that corporations can change from taking and using the planet’s resources to helping save what we have left.
A heartfelt thank you to all who helped bring this change about.
I think I’ll buy stock in the company, after all we can meet them halfway.

SeaWorld Announces Last Generation Of Orcas In Its Care
March 17, 2016
Press Release
Company Partners with Humane Society of the United States on New Animal Welfare and Wildlife Protection Initiatives
ORLANDO, Fla., March 17, 2016 /PRNewswire/ — SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. (NYSE: SEAS), a leading theme park and entertainment company, today announced that the killer whales – or orcas – currently in the company’s care will be the last generation of orcas at SeaWorld. The company will end all orca breeding as of today.
SeaWorld also will introduce new, inspiring, natural orca encounters, rather than theatrical shows, as part of its ongoing commitment to education, marine science research, and rescue of marine animals. These programs will focus on orca enrichment, exercise, and overall health. This change will start in its San Diego park next year, followed by San Antonio and then Orlando in 2019.
SeaWorld also announced today a broad new partnership with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) to protect our oceans and the animals that call them home. The company is committing to educating its more than 20 million annual visitors on animal welfare and conservation issues through interpretative programs at the parks and expanded advocacy for wild whales, seals, and other marine creatures.
“SeaWorld has introduced more than 400 million guests to orcas, and we are proud of our part in contributing to the human understanding of these animals,” said Joel Manby, President and Chief Executive Officer of SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. “As society’s understanding of orcas continues to change, SeaWorld is changing with it. By making this the last generation of orcas in our care and reimagining how guests will encounter these beautiful animals, we are fulfilling our mission of providing visitors to our parks with experiences that matter.”
“SeaWorld’s commitment to end breeding of orcas is a long-held goal of many animal advocacy organizations, and we commend the company for making this game-changing commitment,” said Wayne Pacelle, President and CEO of HSUS. “Today we turn a corner, working together to achieve solutions on a wide set of animal issues including sunsetting the use of orcas at existing facilities; maximizing SeaWorld’s focus on rescue, rehabilitation and advocacy for marine mammals in the wild; and sourcing food for animals and customers from humane and sustainable sources, including cage-free eggs and crate-free pork.”
“We are pleased to join with HSUS on the significant issues facing marine mammals and their ocean homes,” said Manby. “The work done by zoological facilities like SeaWorld is critical for the protection of animals in the wild, especially marine mammals. To that end, SeaWorld has committed $50 million over the next five years to be the world’s leading marine animal rescue organization, to advocate for an end to the commercial killing of whales and seals and an end to shark finning.”
The current population of orcas at SeaWorld – including one orca, Takara, that became pregnant last year – will live out their lives at the company’s park habitats, where they will continue to receive the highest-quality care based on the latest advances in marine veterinary medicine, science, and zoological best practices. Guests will be able to observe these orcas through the new educational encounters and in viewing areas within the existing habitats.
SeaWorld reaffirms its commitment not to collect marine mammals from the wild. It has not collected an orca from the wild in nearly 40 years, and the orcas at SeaWorld were either born there or have spent almost their entire lives in human care. These orcas could not survive in oceans that include environmental concerns such as pollution and other man-made threats.

SeaWorld’s magnificent killer whale, Tilikum, may be nearing death

12000 pound Tilikum, no tank is big enough.
Today SeaWorld released an ominous video (below) about 12,000 pound Tilikum’s condition in which they explain his deteriorating condition which is due to a drug resistant pneumonia.
As shown in the film Blackfish, and meticulously detailed in the book Death at SeaWorld, Tilikum’s life in captivity is iconic of all that is wrong about keeping whales in tanks. Several people may have died from the actions of this whale, but he is equally a victim.
It is time to Empty the Tanks.

Communist Sympathizers Infiltrate SeaWorld Protest – the Question is Why?

Protestors at SeaWorld Orlando, #Empty the Tanks
Protesters at SeaWorld Orlando, #Empty the Tanks

Each of Saturday’s events protesting the captivity of whales and dolphins was unique – not surprising since they occurred all over the world, in over 60 locations. The SeaWorld Orlando protesters’ unique stamp was the paper tombstones for each of the orcas who have died at SeaWorld (pictured above).
The unique bent at the SeaWorld San Diego demonstration was provided by alleged SeaWorld supporters who brought a Fellini-esque presence to the event – from their presence it would seem that if you wave a communist flag you believe in communism, are at a demonstration, and support SeaWorld.
SeaWorld protestors wave the American flag.
SeaWorld protesters wave the American flag, the communists are behind them.

What the heck is "Social Communism"?
What the heck is “Social Communism”?

According to demonstrators, these communist sympathizers often show up at protests in front of the Orlando SeaWorld and try to look like they are part of the anti-captivity movement. Is their goal to try to take credit for the obvious success of the movement? Are they trying to raise awareness about communism? And what is “Social Communism”? Is it different from “Anti-social Communism”? Does it have anything whatsoever to do with whales?

“Four fake communists pretended to be part of our anti-captivity demonstration at SeaWorld Orlando on 4-11-15. At the conclusion of the demonstration, Nathan Crawford of Space Coast For Cetaceans, seen on the video wearing a KoreanDogs.org t-shirt and hat, conducts the interview. Bob Heisler of www.koreandogs.org is the videographer and asks a few questions of the only talkative pseudo communist at the end.”
Reportedly the people waving the communist banners didn’t know anything about communism or whale captivity, so that was no help in getting answers.
Maybe they thought the Communist Party was a party?
Maybe they thought the Communist Party was a party?

A Google search was called for, and I learned that Communism is both inherently social and inherently economic. Social Communism, then, is an oxymoron. I found nothing that linked whales to communism, other than some communist countries display dolphins or whales for profit, a very capitalist concept.
More research showed that the hammer and sickle emblem isn’t used by the American Communist Party, so it is a bit baffling to see it displayed here in the USA.
Wikipedia explains that the star added over the top of the sickle and hammer originated in the now defunct Soviet Union, but other countries adopt it:

While there is no known original allegory behind the red star beyond being a universal political symbol, in the Soviet Union, the red star gained a more precise symbolism as representing the Communist Party, and its position on the flag over the united hammer and sickle symbolised the party leading the Soviet working class in the building of communism.
Today the red star is used by many socialist and communist parties and organizations across the world.

Macy's, we're on to you!
Macy’s, we’re on to you!

Pellegrino, you don't fool us either...
Pellegrino, you don’t fool us either…

If you add up the facts – a Soviet Union era flag, displayed by people who know nothing about communism at an animal rights protest, there is only one – and obvious – answer to why they are there. Someone wants people the world over to think that a group of people exercising their Constitutional Rights in front of SeaWorld are communists.
I wonder who? And how did they get communist sympathizers to do it? (SeaWorld could not be reached for comments.)
seaworld-logo with star

Seriously, Seaworld, What ARE You Thinking?

Fullscreen capture 3292015 70438 PM seaworld
No_pants_No_Problem_by_Splounge seaworld
There is something about Seaworld’s latest campaign to argue against the facts presented in the film Blackfish that has seemed a bit over-the-top and irrational at times, but I have remained silent.  With all the recent changes going on in management there, I thought that the best policy was to give them a break, give them time to reassess their business model and – always hopeful – I believed that they would step up to the plate, reinvent themselves, and truly take a unique and important role in the serious issues that confront cetaceans in the wild.
pantsonfire seaworld
Unfortunately though, Seaworld continues to baffle the public and the animal welfare community with half-truths and distortions of fact. Are they really prepared to give us “truth without pants”? According to this article , Seaworld continues to dispense carefully crafted half-truths…so whether they are wearing pants or not, the truthiness of Seaworld’s statements is still questionable.
maxresdefault seaworld
Maybe their fashion sense is so…well…(words escape me)…that sharing without their pants is altogether preferable than standing before the world fully clothed and admitting that they have been wrong and made mistakes.whale_pant_grande_large seaworld
They are so busy protecting themselves that they can’t see that most people just want to see them change from an exploitative and manipulative company to an organization that is truly invested in preserving the well-being and the future survival of marine mammals. People want to love Seaworld again, they just need to know that the company has a new plan going into the future – one that is open, transparent, and sincerely has the animals’ best interest at heart.Cute-Whale-PP-Pants seaworld
Seaworld, please put your big boy/girl pants back on, admit the past failings and step into the future. We really don’t want to see you with your pants down, we just want to see your heart.

Bring the Orca “Lolita” Home – Walk a Mile, Lift a Pint and Show Your Support in Seattle

10923313_824359907603397_9199364462504661247_n lolita march

Meet on Saturday January 17th, 1 pm. Alki Beach Park, West Seattle.

Gather at 1:00 p.m. at the Statue of Liberty plaza at Alki Beach Park (intersection of Alki Ave. S.W. and 61st Ave. S.W.). Lots of street parking within a few blocks, but give yourself time to park and walk to the plaza, which is located just west of the Alki BathHouse, in the grassy part of the park. Metro bus #50 stops across the street.  
We will walk approximately one mile at a slow pace on wide, level, paved pedestrian walkway, separated from traffic. The route is fully accessible.  Dogs welcome. 
We will have a simple closing ceremony at the end of the route, and then march across the street to the Celtic Swell, a family-friendly pub, to get out of the weather. Talented Seattle singer/songwriter/guitarist Jim Marcotte will share his original song about Lolita and some other good tunes as we warm up and socialize.  Details can be found on the event page.
For decades, people in Washington state (and worldwide) have been working to get “Lolita” out of captivity and back with her wild family.
Lolita has lived in the Miami Seaquarium for decades in a small pool without companions of her own species for most of the time…yet despite petitions, letters and calls to Congress, as well as weekly demonstrations at the Miami Seaquarium, the Seaquarium remains defiant and the government remains mute.

But this year’s walk may finally draw the attention needed to help the big whale in the tiny tank.
Organizers of the “Miracle March for Lolita” point to the increased awareness of orca captivity raised by the documentary Blackfish as well as challenges to the legality of having an endangered species in such dismal conditions as indication that changes are on the horizon.
It is not as if “Lolita” was given a good home or had an easy adjustment, and those factors play in to the deep anger that people feel about her continued confinement.

Eyewitness Account of the Orca “Lolita’s” Traumatic Arrival at the Amusement Park; Whale’s Name Linked to Miami Marketing

Pat Sykes, a former Miami Seaquarium  show assistant from June 1970 to August 1973, describes the traumatic arrival of the newly captured orca Lolita, and shares how  the whale got that name.  By sharing her experience, Pat gives us an unparalleled view into both the harsh reality of how callously this whale was treated, and how the young whale was linked by a powerful marketing agency to the city of Miami’s ‘subtly sexy’ image.

In Pat’s own words:
“Toki [Lolita] arrived at the Seaquarium in the first week of August 1970.  I was fresh out of high school and was one of 3 women hired to be what they called ,”Aquamaids” or “Show Assistants”.
She [Lolita] had a very hard time. She just barely floated.  The skin on her back cracked and bled from the sun and wind exposure.  She wouldn’t eat   the diet of frozen herring.
At night, she cried.
Just across the way swam Hugo, a beautiful juvenile orca who [had] arrived May 1968.  He was in the pre-fab brand new “whale Bowl”, which was a very big deal. First orca on the East Coast.   He heard her and whistled back.  He would swim around the tank faster and faster and smash rostrum-first into the inverted bubble  plexiglass window .  I told my superiors and the men in maintenance, and got dismissed as [being] a flannel headed 18-year-old.  “Oh he will never break it” “It can’t happen”  .
One night “it” did happen.  Hugo hit that bubble,breaking the front of the plexiglass.  510,000 gallons of refrigerated,chemically treated water rushed over his blowhole, almost drowning him.  The front of his rostrum was jaggedly severed.  Doc White did sew it back on with steel stitches but it never reattached.
Press/publicity in those days was handled out of Hank Meyers office, on Miami Beach. Jane Wrigley had the Miami Seaquarium account.  She heard what happened to Hugo, and referred to Toki as a “screaming Lolita”.”

This video shows that by 1971 “Screaming Lolita” and Hugo were sharing the tank – too small for even one whale – where Lolita lives today.

Hugo was also captured from Washington state. He died in 1980 from a brain aneurysm, the result of repeatedly bashing his head against the walls and windows of the tanks. This is where he was confined until he was moved with “Lolita” to the show pool.

Is there any redeeming value to having “Lolita” live at the Miami Seaquarium? Education? Ambassador? Absolutely not.
In the video below the trainer explains that “Lolita” might eat dolphins in the wild but has not eaten the dolphins in her tank…which is so wrong. “Lolita’s” type eat salmon and other fish, not marine mammals. (The trainer explains “Lolita’s” diet around the three minute mark).
The more people who turn up at the walk in Seattle, the louder the message – what the Miami Seaquarium took from the region was wrong, and keeping her is worse.

“Blackfish”, the Film That Exposed SeaWorld, Airs Again Tonight on CNN

Blackfish, the film that centers around the death of SeaWorld trainers and the amusement park’s treatment of orcas, will be shown at 7 pm EST on Saturday, December 20th.  If you miss it, the film is also available on Netflix and can be watched at any time during a free trial.
This film lifts the veils of secrecy and illusion and shines a light on the stark reality of SeaWorld’s circus-like entertainment, and is credited with bringing the amusement park to its financial knees. Lowered attendance, tumbling stock value, and negative public opinion can be traced back to the first opening of Blackfish, and CNN’s decision to promote it widely.  (SunSentinel)
The good news is that SeaWorld’s management is undergoing a massive transformation, and now they have a chance to redeem themselves in the court of public opinion. There are some indications that they are going to become what we would all like to see and experience – an open, accessible park built on helping the marine mammals that are sorely in need, so please watch for opportunities to answer polls and encourage SeaWorld’s board of directors in that direction.
Your opinion really does matter.

SeaWorld CEO Jim Atchison is Stepping Down


The whales can't speak, they are relying on you to see past the hype and recognize their plight.
The whales can’t speak, they are relying on you to see past the hype and recognize their plight.

Press Release:

Jim Atchison Becomes Vice Chairman; Board Launches Search for Permanent CEO –
– Two New Independent Directors Appointed to Board –

ORLANDO, Fla., Dec. 11, 2014 /PRNewswire/ — SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. (NYSE: SEAS), a leading theme park and entertainment company, today announced that, effective January 15, 2015, Chairman David F. D’Alessandro will serve as the Company’s interim CEO until the Board of Directors (the “Board”) selects a permanent successor to current CEO and President, Jim Atchison, who will become Vice Chairman of the Board. Mr. D’Alessandro, who has been Chairman of the Company’s Board since 2010, will continue in that position. He served as Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of John Hancock Financial Services from 2000 to 2004, having served as President and Chief Operating Officer of the same entity from 1996 to 2000.
In addition, Mr. Atchison will serve as a consultant to the Company with respect to international expansion and the Company’s conservation initiatives. The Company will also nominate Mr. Atchison to serve as the chairman of the board of the not-for-profit, independent SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund.
“On behalf of the entire Board, I’d like to thank Jim for his contributions to the Company and express our ongoing support for our long-term strategy. Jim has helped the Company realize its vision of becoming a leader in the theme park industry, one of the world’s foremost zoological organizations and a global leader in animal care,” Mr. D’Alessandro said. “We remain committed to our growth agenda and enhancing value for our shareholders. The Board intends to complete the search process deliberately and thoughtfully to find the right individual with the experience and qualifications to lead the Company into the future.”
“It has been an honor to lead SeaWorld,” said Mr. Atchison. “I am so proud of this Company and our dedicated team members. I look forward to serving as Vice Chairman and continuing to work with the Board, David, and our exceptional team to assure a smooth transition,” said Mr. Atchison.
The Board of Directors, which expects to complete the search in six to nine months, has engaged a leading executive search firm to assist in the search for Mr. Atchison’s successor.
In addition, the Board of Directors appointed two new independent directors, The Honorable Ellen Tauscher, a strategic advisor at the law firm of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC who previously served as a Member of Congress and as an Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of State, and Mr. William Gray, the former Co-Chief Executive Officer of Ogilvy North America of Ogilvy & Mather Inc. Their appointments are effective immediately.
In announcing the Board’s appointment of Ms. Tauscher and Mr. Gray, Mr. D’Alessandro said, “We are delighted to welcome Ellen and Bill to the Board. They bring us an extraordinary breadth and depth of experience relevant to the Company’s business.”
The Company continues to advance its previously announced company-wide cost initiative, including its plan to deliver approximately $50 million of annual cost savings by the end of 2015. As part of that plan, the Company also announced today a restructuring program across its entire 11-park enterprise. This effort will centralize some operations, reduce duplication of functions and increase efficiencies and accelerate execution. The restructuring will result in the loss of some positions, and the Company will offer severance benefits to those impacted.
“In order to achieve the goals of our business realignment, we regret that some positions will necessarily be eliminated. However, our cost savings effort is part of a broader program to position us for long term growth,” Mr. Atchison said.

– See more at: http://www.seaworldinvestors.com/news-releases/news-release-details/2014/SeaWorld-Entertainment-Inc-Announces-David-DAlessandro-Named-Interim-CEO/default.aspx#sthash.EQf762hK.dpuf

Risso’s Dolphins – The Gray “Blackfish” Who Are Killed by Ignorance for Greed

Risso's dolphin with Milton Santini, who caught the dolphins used in Flipper.
Risso’s dolphin with Milton Santini (right), who caught the dolphins used in Flipper.

Risso's dolphins are closely related to pilot whales and other "blackfish".
Risso’s dolphins are closely related to pilot whales and other “blackfish”.

Like orcas and other blackfish species, Risso’s dolphins are hunted for captivity and out of fear. Just as killer whales were shot by fishermen for taking a few salmon from their nets, Risso’s dolphins (closely related to pilot whales) are destroyed annually in large part because they are mistakenly seen as competitors for dwindling squid supplies in Japan.
Cute is about the best word to describe the appearance of these dolphins – their heavily scarred skin was historically thought to be the result of clashes with pod mates, but now more consideration is given to the fact that the scarring is also to battles with squid, such as the fearsome Humboldt squid.
Journalist Tim Zimmermann’s description of these large predatory squid is frightening, and it is easy to see how these squids would leave their mark on the dolphins:

Squid beak. (Biolab)
Squid beak. (Biolab)

…a powerful, outsize squid that features eight snakelike arms lined with suckers full of nasty little teeth, a razor-sharp beak that can rapidly rip flesh into bite-size chunks, and an unrelenting hunger. It’s called the Humboldt, or jumbo, squid, and it’s not the sort of calamari you’re used to forking off your dinner plate. This squid grows to seven feet or more and perhaps a couple hundred pounds. It has a rep as the outlaw biker of the marine world: intelligent and opportunistic, a stone-cold cannibal willing to attack divers with a seemingly deliberate hostility.
…”They have huge brains for their body size, much larger than most invertebrates,” says [biology professor at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station William Gilly]. “They might be as smart as a dog.”


Take away the top predators – Risso’s dolphins among them – and the ruthless, cooperative, intelligent invertebrates are likely to fill the niche once occupied by marine mammals, possibly decimating fish (and small dolphin) populations. In place of friendly dolphins eager to share the waves, our oceans would be filled with a species that would just as soon kill us, instead of saving us as dolphins are known to do.
One famous Risso’s dolphin, named Pelorus Jack, even guided ships through treacherous waters for 20 years.

Yet these dolphins are ruthlessly hunted by Japanese fishermen – not for their meat – but because the fishermen have gotten a wrong idea stuck in their heads. They see the dolphins and whales as competitors for fish and small squid.
From Save Japan Dolphins:

During a meeting with the Taiji fishermen in January 2004, the fishermen told us that they do not only hunt dolphins for their meat or for sale to the dolphinarium industry. In their own words, they kill the dolphins “as a form of pest control.”
The dolphins, from the fishermen’s perspective, eat too much fish, and the fishermen are simply killing the competition. This is the first time ever that Japanese dolphin hunters have openly admitted to executing pest control on dolphins. Over-fishing of the oceans is a tremendous problem on a global level, and the Japanese fishermen, supported by their government, are wrongly pointing at the dolphins as the reason for this depletion. The Japanese government is making the same false argument in front of the International Whaling Commission that whales eat fish and therefore need to be controlled by killing.
The desire to keep the dolphin population down is a major reason why the Japanese government is so keen on issuing permits for the hunts. It is not really about providing meat for the Japanese people. It is not really about maintaining what the fishermen repeatedly refer to as their “tradition” or “culture.”
It is about eradicating as many dolphins as possible in order to make the oceans’ fish available to themselves.  We know of several areas in Japan where local dolphin populations have declined or been eradicated by this mentality, fully supported by the Japanese government.


The majority of the adults are killed, and the babies are released to the wild where they are unlikely to survive.  This is done so that the babies don't count against the permitted number of kills. (Photo from Planet Whale).
The majority of the adults are killed, and the babies are released to the wild where they are unlikely to survive. This is done so that the babies don’t count against the permitted number of kills. (Photo from Planet Whale).

Researchers have conclusively proven that whales and dolphins are of little direct competition for fish and marketable squid – it turns out that the biggest competitor in those areas are large fish. (Competition Between Fisheries and Marine Mammals for Prey and Primary Production in the Pacific Ocean). Where humans and dolphins do compete is at the trophic level.  In other words, commercially viable fish just happen to thrive in a different branch of the same food web.
Dolphins don't directly compete for fish and squid after all. http://www.zoology.ubc.ca/~consort/2006/ecosystem_change.php
Dolphins don’t directly compete for fish and squid after all. http://www.zoology.ubc.ca/~consort/2006/ecosystem_change.php

The slaughter of thousands dolphins in the hands of a few Taiji, Japan fishermen each year is brutal (for more on the Japan dolphin drives I highly recommend this informative article  by Elizabeth Batt, and also the Save Japan Dolphins website), as told in this eyewitness account:

By Cynthia Fernandez Cove Monitor Save Japan Dolphins Earth Island Institute
One Risso’s, in particular, had such a will to live!  Trying to escape the killers, it swam into the nets, the killers tried to untangle it, but it was fighting so hard for its right to live.  Finally, they tied its tail to the boat and pulled it towards the tarps.  As it was being pulled, it continued to fight so ferociously for survival, I could hear it’s body slamming into the boat, repeatedly.  A sound I will never forget.  I fought back my tears as I watched this beautiful animal struggle so hard to live.  Unfortunately, a dolphin is no match for these heartless killers.  As they pulled that dolphin under the tarps, the thrashing was louder and longer than I had ever heard.  I knew that dolphin was still fighting to live. 

Courtesy of Digital Journal.
Courtesy of Digital Journal.

Then, the silence came, and the Cove water began to turn a blood red.  I knew that brave dolphin had finally succumbed to these heartless, dolphin killers.  I could no longer hold back my tears.  I will never forget that courageous dolphin and all the other dolphins of Taiji. I watched as the bodies of the Risso’s were first loaded onto the skiffs then transferred to a banger boat for transport to the butcher house.  Once again, the killers sat on the tarps that covered the bodies so that the lifeless corpses could not be seen or photographed. Once again, beautiful Risso’s dolphins, which had just been swimming freely hours ago, had been reduced to limp, lifeless bodies by this handful of men.  Just another day in Taiji.

My training as a biologist makes it a struggle to express – without being anthropomorphic – what I felt once when I made eye contact with a wild Risso’s dolphin out in the open ocean. A gray and white head materialized on the face of an approaching swell, rising as our ship descended into a trough.  He hung there for a few seconds and gazed into my eyes. apparently curious, before turning and disappearing again into the choppy water.
When he left, the ocean once again seemed a vast and lonely void, peopled only by marching swells.
In the film The Whalewhich is about a young orca who befriended humans, people try to describe how it feels to make contact with an intelligent, albeit large, dolphin (orcas, or killer whales are actually just very large dolphins):
The Taiji fishermen claim that they have ancestral rights to kill the dolphins and whales, but the truth is that the annual dolphin slaughter didn’t really amount to much until around 1969, when simultaneously Japan’s fisheries began to collapse, and marine mammal amusement parks boomed (SeaWorld purchased false killer whales from Taiji at one point).
The sales of captured dolphins is lucrative, and unfortunately for the animals, they are relatively easy pickings for the hunters due to the location of Taiji.
An unfortunate convergence of bathymetry (ocean floor shape) and primitive thinking set the stage for the decimation of Risso’s dolphins in Taiji.  Ironically, this species is usually found off the continental shelf and where the bottom rises steeply towards the surface (Baumgarner et al). The problem for the Risso’s dolphins is that the continental shelf is very narrow along Japan, and worse the convergence of underwater features off the coast of Taiji act as an underwater gateway.

Taiji is located in the region of the reddish dot. Notice how the there is a second steep underwater rise.
Taiji is located in the region of the reddish dot. Notice how the there is a second steep underwater rise.

The few Risso’s dolphins that are deemed “unblemished” enough (not much chance with this species) are taken into captivity and used for entertainment.
It is a sad end for the dolphins, no matter what, and ultimately sad for Japan as they continue to take more from the ocean than can be sustained, and wage war on the species that might be able to protect the viability of their ocean environment. Scientists recently reported that whales play a key role in maintaining healthy fish stocks, and the evidence is mounting that dolphins share that crucial role. Going into the future, the countries that have healthy fisheries will be countries that have healthy dolphin and whale populations, there is no question.
Perhaps saddest of all is that this is not reflective of the majority of the people of Japan, who are largely unaware that these drives take place, and who are beginning to phase out of the consumption of whale and dolphin meat. Cultural change is happening, and hopefully at a swift enough pace to stop the senseless slaughter of the harmless dolphins who pass their shores.
Risso's dolphin in a Japan theme park (OpenCage photo).
Risso’s dolphin in a Japan theme park (OpenCage photo).