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

Please follow and like us:
Pin Share

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).

Please follow and like us:
Pin Share

Leave a Reply