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"It's Dante's Inferno for dolphins"

Welcome to Taiji, Japan, home of the annual bottlenose dolphin slaughter.

Though local officials deny they are succumbing to international outrage, the film appears to be having an impact.

In the first hunt of the season earlier this month, Taiji’s fishermen rounded up 100 bottlenose dolphins and 50 pilot whales, which, despite their name, are the largest members of the dolphin family. Then something unusual happened. The pilot whales were killed, but 30 bottlenoses were sold to aquariums and the remaining 70 set free.

Taiji’s 26 dolphin hunters — a fraction of the town’s 500 fishermen — and their supporters say the culls are necessary to protect squid and fish stocks from ravenous cetaceans. And why, they ask, would they abandon a tradition stretching back 400 years because of outside interference?

“Westerners slaughter cattle and other animals in the most inhumane ways imaginable, but no one says a word,” said one Taiji resident. “Why is it that only Japan gets this kind of treatment?"

Over the next six months the town's fishermen will catch about 2,300 of Japan’s annual quota of 20,000 dolphins. While the meat from a single animal fetches a modest $500, aquariums and sea parks are prepared to pay $150,000 for a live specimen.

There is some truth to claims among Taiji residents that they have been unfairly singled out. Of the 13,067 dolphins caught in Japan in 2007, only 1,623 came from Wakayama prefecture, where the town is located. Hunters in Iwate prefecture were much busier, killing more than 10,000 dolphins, according to the Fisheries Research Agency. But as the birthplace of Japan’s whaling industry and the only place where dolphins are still harpooned close to the shore, Taiji is an obvious target for protesters. Coastal whaling began here in the early 1600s but fell victim to the 1986 global ban on commercial whaling, which does not cover dolphins.

The barbaric nature of their deaths aside, bottlenose dolphins and pilot whales contain dangerously high levels of mercury, with one study showing that mercury levels among Taiji residents are about 10 times higher than the national average.

Locals reject the idea that they are slowly poisoning themselves. "I have been eating whale and dolphin for years and I'm perfectly healthy," said a 75-year-old Taiji fisherman. "The people around here live well into old age.”

O’Barry’s aim is to pressure Taiji’s hunters into maintaining their recent ”non-slaughter” policy and eventually to persuade the Japanese government to ban the culls for good amid an “international tsunami of attention.”

“Stopping the slaughter and sale of dolphins would be a major victory for the people of Japan who risk eating mercury-laced dolphin meat,” he said.

"The Cove" has got his campaign off to a promising start.