TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - The season for hunting pilot whales in a Japanese town made famous by the controversial Oscar-winning documentary "The Cove" has been extended for a month, partly because of a devastating tsunami in March.
Taiji, on the Pacific coast in southwestern Japan, shot to global infamy after the release of the movie, which featured eco-activists who struggle with police and fishermen to gain access to the town's secluded cove where the grisly hunt takes place.
"The pilot whale hunt has been extended to May 31, since fishermen were unable to catch many during the usual September to April season," said an official of the Wakayama prefecture government, which granted the extension.
Pilot whales are a member of the dolphin family but are bigger than some of the better-known dolphins, such as bottlenose dolphins.
In Taiji, they are hunted both by ship and by being driven into a cove, trapped with nets and killed. The slaughter featured in "The Cove," which won an Academy Award last year.
The hunt was poor this year partly because a major ocean current, the Kuroshio, did not approach as close to Japan as usual, keeping the pilot whales away, the official said.
The extension was also granted because a small whaling vessel from Wakayama, which is usually used in the hunt, had to go to northern waters to help with a research program because the boat that usually does it was damaged in the March 11 tsunami.
A 9.0 magnitude quake triggered huge tsunami waves that crashed into Japan's northeast coast. The official death toll is 14,800 with about 11,000 people missing.
Kyodo news agency said Taiji fishermen caught about 60 pilot whales on Wednesday. The annual quota is 200.
Brian Barnes, an animal rights activist, said in a report from Taiji posted on the "Save Japan Dolphins" website that he saw "about 40" pilot whales killed on Thursday and between 50 to 80 killed on Wednesday.
"This slaughter comes at an extremely sensitive time. As a survivor of the tsunami myself in Iwate prefecture, I have seen the suffering people there are dealing with, I know the world wants to help end that suffering," Barnes told Reuters Television via Facebook.
Barnes and a media crew were in Otsuchi, which was devastated by the tsunami, and filmed the wave as it struck.
"But how can the Japanese government continue to ignore world-wide public opposition to killing of dolphins and whales?" he added.
Japan has long maintained that killing and eating whale is a cherished culinary tradition, and conducts annual hunts ostensibly for research purposes.
It says that killing dolphins is not banned under any international treaty and that the animals are not endangered, adding that they need to be culled to protect fishing grounds.
"The Cove" has met with fierce opposition in Japan from groups who say it is "anti-Japanese" and an affront to their culture. The start of its Japanese showing last year was greeted with noisy protests and a scuffle from flag-waving demonstrators.
(Editing by Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson)