Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

The Cove

Posted 26 Sep 2010 / 4

I just watched The Cove, a 2009 documentary that followed the efforts of activists from the Oceanic Preservation Society as they chronicled the seasonal capture and slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan.

As a person concerned with biodiversity conservation and animal rights, I was eager to watch this film after hearing about its focus on a secretive dolphin harvest that occurs every fall off of the coast of Japan. I also have an secondary motive for watching the film: I have begun to pull together materials for a course focused on the ethics of animal use. What I would like to bring to such a course would be a behavioral and evolutionary perspective, which would help students to understand what is known about animal cognition and consciousness as well as recognize the very different relationships we have with domesticated and wild animals. Ideally, the course would be co-taught with another professor who is well-versed in ethics, which would allow us to tackle both what is known about animals and how to interpret that knowledge through the frame of human morality. What would be exciting about such a course is the potential for considering bioethical issues on scales ranging from individual animals all the way up to ecosystems and the services they provide.

Although it is clearly a propaganda piece, I think that The Cove could be a pretty valuable resource for such a course. Dolphins are one of the most cognitively-advanced species that we have not successfully domesticated, joining only their fellow cetaceans (whales and porpoises) and the great apes (orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas) in a small group of social species that have been subjected to a lot of captivity but have not found much success in “adapting” to life with humans. It would be interesting to consider how these species are different from the species that have fared well under domestication (dogs, cats, some birds, some fish), and The Cove provides a nice overview on why dolphins suffer in captivity: they are highly social, wide-ranging creatures that rely heavily on sound to communicate with each other. These traits make their small-scale captivity in concrete tanks potentially torturous.

The Cove tackles to varying degrees both the individual- and population-scale ethical issues associated with the Taiji dolphin harvest. A primary question is whether dolphins should be used for entertainment purposes. The Taiji harvest supplies the majority of dolphins used by the many marine parks and “swim with dolphins” programs worldwide, and The Cove looks at the question of whether dolphins can be ethically kept under these conditions. A secondary question is whether dolphins are too cognitively-advanced to be simply slaughtered for food, which is what happens to those dolphins that are harvested but not selected for entertainment purposes. Here The Cove hits pretty hard, providing the first direct footage of the dolphin slaughter obtained from a remote hidden cove in Taiji. Although we learn a little about dolphin cognition and consciousness, I think that further information on what science has discovered about dolphins would be needed in order to really tackle the issue of whether it is ethical to eat dolphins.

At the population-scale, The Cove does provide us with some insight into the machinations of the International Whaling Commission, but there is not a lot of population ecology here. The question of whether dolphins can be harvested in the name of “pest management” (because they potentially compete with commercial fisheries) was addressed, but not with any scientific evidence brought to bear on the question.

Although it is a bit of a tangential issue, The Cove also does a great job of providing viewers with a visual understanding of the problem of bioaccumulation of toxic substances. Looking at the risk of mercury poisoning to those who eat dolphins, the movie provides a nice animated depiction of why top predators can end up containing extraordinary amounts of toxins. This presents an additional issue: is it ethical to allow toxin-laced seafood to be sold to consumers?

The Cove is a clear provocation to anyone with a compassion for animals. It is also a wonderful jumping-off point for a number of ethical and scientific questions. I hope to use it in my classroom some day to motivate students to delve deeper into the scientific and ethical issues surrounding the use of animals by humans. While its very-slanted take on the issue of dolphin use would need to be balanced by other perspectives, it lays out the key issues in plain and very vivid terms.

Biodiversity Loss, Conservation Biology, Ethics, Film, Television, & Video, Marine Ecosystems, Reviews, Teaching

4 Comments to "The Cove"

T 13th October 2010 at 6:15 am

a question that i was given is ……What are the ethical concerns raised in the film ‘The Cove’?. it would be great if you could just outline them

Chris Jensen 15th October 2010 at 12:55 pm

I think that there are two main ethical considerations in relation to the dolphin hunting in Taiji.

The first ethical concern is whether we should be capturing and killing dolphins at all, because as the film points out they clearly can experience suffering. Science has the potential to inform this ethical consideration, as it can tell us something about how similar dolphin consciousness is to human consciousness (although it will likely always be impossible to know exactly what they “feel”). Of course even if we have really great science explaining the neurological consciousness of dolphins, that does not tell us whether killing them is ethical. As with all ethical issues, we need to decide as humans what our values are — in this case what degree of animal suffering is acceptable — and decide accordingly which animals we are willing to kill.

The second ethical concern is more ecological or environmental, and that regards whether or not we can sustainably harvest dolphins in this manner without disrupting the ecosystem with which they interact. Again, science can estimate the likelihood that harvesting a certain number of dolphins would have an adverse impact on the marine ecosystem, but we has humans have to apply our own values to decide what level of risk and what probable outcomes are acceptable.

natalie 6th March 2011 at 3:34 am

Im writing a paper about the cove for a current worlds problems for a class and there is some questions that im supossed to answer. I have watched the movie and was hurt because of everything that happened and is still happening and i wish that more could be done and that it would stop. ITS WRONG THAT THEY ARE DOING!!!

These are the questions:
What is the issue of the concern?
why is virtually nothing being done to stop illegal dolphan hunting,particularly in Japan?
What can be done?
What should be done?
Can i make a difference?

Thank you so much for the help!!

Chris Jensen 9th March 2011 at 10:03 am

Hi Natalie, it sounds as if you are hoping to find a quick means of getting this paper done. There are no quick ways to do good research, but I would start with the website of The Cove movie and the organization, The Oceanic Preservation Society, that produced it. I also encourage you to look into opposing views. You might try the Japanese Whaling Association, which has some defense of its industry presented on its site.

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