The time is ripe for a masterful documentary that weaves a riveting yarn from the collapse of the world’s fisheries and Japan’s heartless pursuit of the ocean’s last great bounty from bluefin tuna to blue whales. The Cove is not that film.  

At its core, The Cove is about the capture and slaughter of dolphins for meat in a heavily guarded inlet in Taiji, Japan, and the activists who seek to end this hunt. These activists include Richard O’Barry, the dolphin trainer who regrets his work on the TV series Flipper in the 1960s, and Paul Watson, the controversial captain of the Sea Shepherd who made Taiji’s dolphin hunt known through footage he posted on YouTube in 2003. All this is used, somehow, to also put the spotlight on the world’s declining fisheries. To director Louie Psihoyos, the lines are clear: you are either an “activist” or an “inactivist,” and this perspective (or lack thereof) becomes the film’s greatest flaw, reducing it from what could have been a powerful piece of undercover journalism to propaganda.  

Dolphins and porpoises are two of the marine mammal groups in the order Cetacea, along with animals that the lay public calls whales. Dolphins are, in fact, more closely related to a beaked whale than a beaked whale is to a humpback. To add to the confusion, Pilot whales and killer whales are actually in the dolphin family.  

Pro- and anti-whaling countries dispute whether the smaller cetaceans should be regulated under the International Whaling Commission. The IWC banned whaling in 1986 as many species reached bottom. The Japanese, however, have continued the practice through their dubious scientific whaling program known as the Institute of Cetacean Research.  

Dolphins, as portrayed in The Cove, are the scraps left behind from the already overexploited marine ecosystem. The Japanese harvest an estimated 23,000 dolphins each year, but according to the filmmakers, no one in Japan really wants to eat dolphin meat.  Consequently, it is sometimes falsely labeled and sold as whale, which is more palatable to the Japanese.

The film goes further to indict the dolphin hunt in Taiji, revealing how the Japanese government, conspiring with local goons, is suppressing information on dangerously high mercury levels in coastal dolphins that were potentially going to end up in obligatory school lunches. Finally, Japan’s dolphin meat industry only exists as a byproduct of the much more lucrative live dolphin trade for marine amusement parks around the world.  

Much of this is old news, but it nevertheless remains shocking to see it all on film.  Psihoyos does an admirable job bringing the science to life with on-screen DNA tests, mercury analyses, infrared cameras, hydrophones, and even a reference to a 2006 Science paper. To be sure, the filmmaker also scores some journalistic coups (and a few potshots) against the hypocrisy of the highly secretive Japanese whaling industry and Japan’s back-scratching of Caribbean nations on the IWC.  

But Psihoyos never distinguishes the pragmatic questions about creating a sustainable and transparent whaling industry from the ethical question that colors his outlook: Should humans kill marine mammals for food?  

Since he has already decided the practice is barbaric, science and sustainability are mere window dressings. One key piece of data that he manages to skim over is that some species of whales, such as the Minke, are no longer threatened as they were in the 1980s. Yet, rather than establish a modest, sustainable quota, a blanket ban has remained in place that will never appease traditional whaling nations. As for dolphins, in the 1970s, more than 100,000 were accidentally netted by fisherman each year, but that  number has since been reduced to a few thousand with new gear. Today, according to the IUCN Red List, the striped, bottlenose, and Risso’s dolphins hunted in Taiji are all considered species of “Least Concern.”

Indeed, many conservationists – none of whom were interviewed in the film – think that sustainable use of wildlife, rather than an outright ban, is the only way to guarantee the survival of species and the preservation of ecosystems.  I, for one, would rather see a temporary moratorium on the bluefin tuna fishery and tougher restrictions placed on rampant shark-finning, than spend my limited time worrying about Taiji’s dolphin industry. A more interesting film would ask what political forces have kept the current international ban on whaling – and the United States’ own Marine Mammal Protection Act – in place, while allowing the fish that feed the Earth to rapidly decline to practical oblivion.

Image of dolphin courtesy m-louis via Flickr