dolphin hunt
Fishermen in wetsuits hunt dolphins at a cove in Taiji, western Japan Reuters

The annual culling of hundreds of bottlenose dolphins in a Japanese cove has begun amid international outcry over the hunt.

Members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS), who monitor the culling in the coastal town of Taiji, has said the killing of hundreds of dolphins started in the cove at around 7:30am local time.

Both US and British ambassadors have condemned the "drive killings", where fishermen lead hundreds of the mammals to a cove in Taiji, in the western Wakayama prefecture, to select some to sell to marine parks. The rest are either released or killed for meat.

British Ambassador to Japan, Timothy Hitchens, his tweeted disapproval to the culling. He said: "The UK opposes all forms of dolphin and porpoise drives; they cause terrible suffering. We regularly raise [the issue] with Japan."

Caroline Kennedy, the recently installed US ambassador to Japan, also tweeted that she is "deeply concerned by inhumaneness of drive hunt dolphin killing."

Many in Japan have defended the cull despite its condemnation from the West. They argue it is a local custom and it is a vital source of income for the town and helps maintain fish levels in the water.

dolphin hunt
Japanese fishermen drive a large group of dolphins into the shallows to be killed, hiding themselves behind a tarpaulin Reuters

Japanese officials also point out it is not illegal to hunt bottlenose dolphins and they are not an endangered species. They also argue the lawful way they hunt the dolphins is no different from any other slaughtering of animals for their meat.

The methods used to capture and kill the dolphins have also attracted condemnation. The fishermen surround pods of dolphins, banging metal poles in the water to confuse the animals and disrupt their sonar. The animals are then herded into shallow water and left for several days before being led into a the cove where some are slaughtered for meat.

Japan's chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga defended the hunt. "I believe dolphin fishing is one of Japan's traditional fishing industries and is carried out appropriately in accordance to the law," he said.

"Furthermore, dolphins are not within the management of the International Whaling Commission and it is left to the respective nations to manage this resource.

"We will explain Japan's position to the American side."

dolphin hunt
The annual dolphin hunt currently underway in Taiji has long been a source of controversy and was the topic of documentary The Cove Reuters

Taiji mayor Kazutaka Sangen also responded to the public criticism from Kennedy. He said: "I understand her statement as an expression of her concern on this debate.

"There always are the people who say it's wrong and it's right, but what we have to see is if fishermen are hunting endangered species or not. They don't. We are fishing under the permission just like the US does.

"We have fishermen in our community and they are exercising their fishing rights," he said. "We feel that we need to protect our residents against the criticisms."

Sea Shepherd said 176 marine mammals had been killed this season before this latest cull.

The 2009 Oscar-nominated documentary The Cove brought the issue of the Taiji hunt to a worldwide audience.