For the first time in Japan, two elected officials are warning the Japanese public of dangerous levels of mercury in dolphin meat, and condemned its consumption, especially in school lunches. They say the public is unaware of the health problems associated with the meat, and are on a mission to educate them. Catherine Makino reports from Tokyo.
Two city assemblymen from the fishing town of Taiji in the southern prefecture (state) of Wakayama, say short-fin dolphin meat was taken from supermarkets in the city and tested for mercury over the past year. Junichiro Yamashita and Hisato Yono say it contained more than 10 to 16 times the government's limit.
Although supermarkets are removing it from their shelves, Taiji is moving ahead with plans to build a $3 million dolphin processing plant. In addition, there are plans to expand the government's program of supplying school lunches with dolphin meat.
Speaking to journalists, Yamashita strongly denounced those plans, and said the school lunches were like feeding children "toxic waste." He says the government does not warn people that eating dolphin meat is a health hazard - mercury can cause severe brain damage and potentially fatal health problems.
"I stressed to the town council that it was risky and dangerous to use the meat, and it should be destroyed," he said.
Japanese medical researchers have also voiced concern about the high levels of mercury found in dolphin meat. Sea animals pick up the mercury in polluted coastal waters.
He says the government and the fishing industry hide the information from the public.
"The mass media is not taking it up because it could threaten the economy of the small town of Taiji, and hurt major fishery industries and the hunting drives of dolphins," he said.
Environmental groups such as Greenpeace and the Elsa Nature Conservancy of Japan warned two years ago that short-fin dolphin meat was contaminated. The groups also used the warning in a campaign to stop Japan's annual dolphin hunts.
About 2,300 dolphins are killed yearly in Taiji and 20,000 throughout the country. In Taiji, the mammals traditionally are herded into small coves, where they are speared and hacked to death. Most other countries ban dolphin hunting.
In the 1950s, the coastal waters around a small town in Japan called Minamata experienced massive mercury poisoning. About 3,000 people who ate seafood from the town's coastal waters were sickened and suffered permanent harm.