the cove

“did you, did you do, did you do all you could?” ~ani difranco

this week i was finally able to make it to a showing of the documentary the cove. now that it has won an oscar and all sorts of other awards, you hardly need me to tell you how amazingly well put together this movie is. i am a poor candidate for movie critic, because i never get to see things until they’ve been out for a long while, if then. (my co-worker is always pulling me aside when popular culture topics come up and jokingly filling me in on the background: “so star wars was this movie back in the 80s….”) still, this movie speaks to a subject near and dear to my heart, and i have been processing it all night, all day, and want to put some of these thoughts down.

the cove documents the inhumane slaughter of dolphins in taiji, japan. i am typically very sensitive to graphic blood and gore and even just emotionally gripping (non-gory) movies. ever since childhood when the wizard of oz gave me nightmares, i can be altered for days afterwards, while i process and purge movies from my brain. given that there are dolphins i am on a first name basis with, and that i have spent time with them in the wild, and that i have spent portions of my scientific career working to better understand these creatures, needless to say i was nervous about voluntarily watching them be killed. the footage of the actual killing is stunningly, achingly graphic, but in a way that is as tasteful as i think it could be, when innocent beings are being tortured and are suffering before your eyes on screen. the way the ocean turned completely red was beyond surreal.

i was gripping my seat, holding my breath, biting my lip, crying…. it was very intense. i figured the blood and gore would be the worst part for me but it was actually when the footage would switch to the dolphins free in the wild swimming a zillion nautical miles per hour that i’d get choked up. (i miss them.)

atlantic white sided dolphin bow-riding the schooner harvey gamage off north carolina

i am very, very grateful for the courage of the people who made this film, and to the world for giving it some of the attention it is due.

one thing that i felt was crucial to helping folks understand the big picture of this issue is the connection of this brutal slaughter to the aquarium trade, to the issue of captivity. i’m glad this was stated, but if anything i believe it was understated, and i am not sure how many will walk away from the film understanding that those who support animals in captivity (and that includes me- i have a year membership to our local aquarium in my back pocket as i type this) are complicit in the fact of these inhumane killings. while i have no doubt that most people (if not all) who see the film will feel moved by the “wrongness” of killing dolphins, i do have doubts that the sentiments will extend to captive animals. captivity is such a complex issue, and is certainly a very contentious one, and not one that i feel i have figured out. but i think what this film does do is make the connection that if it was not for the demand for show animals (captive dolphins), it is unlikely that the “fishing” of dolphins in places like taiji would be lucrative enough to keep it going on such a scale. another thing that comes to mind for me is- why don’t all of the aquaria have their fill of dolphins by now? it occurs to me that it is just another type of death sentence, for so many of them. and that of course generates a need for more captures.

for my own conscience’s sake, the animals in our local aquarium are, to my knowledge, all rehabilitated animals that have been deemed unable to return to the wild. that’s still hard for me, but i do see the enormous potential for public outreach value of the aquarium industry.

perhaps my biggest concern about the film is the potential for deepening division along race/class lines. i did not feel the filmmakers were promoting racism by any means, but i fear that the portrayal of the japanese fishers and whalers could easily be seen as a us/them issue because “we” don’t do such things. so i’d just like to remind everyone that although the united states does honor the moratorium on commercial whaling imposed by the international whaling commission (iwc) in 1986, and although japan gets around this international convention via a narrowly legal “objection” and continues commercial whaling thinly veiled as a scientific program, japan has actually done less devastating damage to whale populations than we, the united states, performed in the 20th century. furthermore, marine mammals are killed daily by our own fishers, for many of the same deluded reasons the japanese fisheries present such as the “competition” of marine mammals for the same fish resource. we have firearms, therefore we are entitled to the fish? this unsustainable mentality of “resource use” in our oceans is far from limited to the small island nation of japan.

likewise on the topic of race, i was disturbed by the portrayal of the small caribbean nations like  grenada and dominica, and their participation in the iwc portrayed as “whoring” themselves to japan. the filming of their bumbling, under-informed acceptance of bribes from the japanese to vote for the japanese agenda during iwc meetings seemed unfortunate- especially given that the delegates from those small island nations may represent some of the only people of color participating in the iwc. my feeling is, we are all complicit. please, no one vilify one group or race over this issue. a delegate from a bankrupt island nation is between a rock and a hard place i’m sure, and deserves to come through with dignity intact.

i also worry that we run the risk of further alienating an already quite alienated population of people who make their living from harvesting various species in our oceans. i agree that the fishing out of the ocean is devastating, and there is no excuse for the unsustainable rape of the oceans. i also feel that preserving a career, a history, a culture, pales in comparison to the need to preserve an ocean, an environment, a future. here again, it is not all the fault of the people who do the dirty deed.

all criticism aside, this film is phenomenal, and i highly recommend seeing it if you haven’t already.

it’s hard to stomach, but it’s also eye opening and inspiring. i’m inspired to see what i can do to help solve these issues. it’s tough to find the place where i can make the biggest difference in getting these enormous problems somehow turned around. whether through my role as a biologist or simply my citizenship on planet earth, i plan to do as much as i can.

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