A baby bottle nose dolphin swims close to his mother at an aquarium in Tokyo on June 7, 2011.

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A "small proportion" of dolphins caught at Taiji were sold to Japanese aquariums

Industry body WAZA has been pressuring its Japanese members for years on the issue

Every year, hunters kill up to 2,000 dolphins and porpoises, mostly for meat

CNN  — 

Japanese aquariums have narrowly avoided being thrown out of the global industry body by agreeing to stop buying dolphins caught in the controversial Taiji hunt.

Graphic images of slaughtered dolphins in red pools of blood attracted worldwide attention when Taiji was featured in the Academy Award-winning 2009 film “The Cove.”

Every year, hunters descend on the town in Wakayama Prefecture, where they’re licensed to kill nearly 2,000 and dolphins and porpoises from seven different species. Japan defends the practice as being in accordance with local customs.

Most are killed for their meat, but a “small proportion” are caught for live sales to aquariums worldwide, according to the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA).

JAZA suspended

Last month, WAZA suspended the membership of the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA) for violating its code of ethics on animal welfare.

WAZA said it had worked for years to work collaboratively with JAZA to stop its members from taking dolphins from “Taiji drives fisheries” to no avail. Drive fishing involves using boats to push the dolphins into a bay where they’re trapped in nets or killed.

In a letter dated May 20, the chairman of the Japanese association thanked WAZA for its “dispassionateness and patience” over the issue. It said all JAZA members would be banned from taking dolphins from the Taiji hunt and taking part in their “export and sale,” and appealed for its membership to be reinstated.

In a statement, WAZA said the move was a “welcome breakthrough” that reaffirms its “well-considered approach of working collaboratively with international partners to improve the well-being and conservation of global wildlife.”

2014: Japan officials defend dolphin hunting at Taiji Cove

Impact of ban

JAZA represents about 150 zoos and aquariums, including Churaumi Aquarium in Okinawa, one of the largest in the world. JAZA said 99 of its members had voted to stay with WAZA. The group said larger aquariums wouldn’t feel the effects of the ban for possibly several years, but for smaller operations it could cause “great difficulties.”

Around 20 dolphins are caught each year at Taiji for JAZA members, the group said, adding that it would focus its efforts on dolphin breeding programs to address any shortfall.

Taiji Mayor Kazutaka Sangen said the ban would not mean an end to “drive fishing.”

“We continue to protect our fishermen who do fishing under the permission given by the local and central governments We will not end (drive fishing),” Sangen said.

“(Drive hunting) is a legal fishing. The town will protect the fishing operated by our fishermen with the proper right.”

Taiji hunt

According to the Dolphin Project, 751 dolphins were slaughtered at Taiji during the last season, which ran from September 2014 to March 2015. Another 80 were kept for captivity, while 251 were released. It cautioned that the figures were rough estimates based on independent observations.

The project, which is run by the U.S.-based Earth Island Institute, said the biggest market for captive dolphins was Japan. Dolphins caught at Taiji are also sent to China, the Middle East and Russia, the group said.

Campaign group Sea Shepherd said the ban was “great news for the dolphins of Taiji.”

“With the elimination of the demand for Taiji dolphins from Japanese aquariums, Taiji’s hunt is one huge step close to being sunk economically,” the group said in a statement.

WAZA represents more than 1,300 zoos and aquariums worldwide.

Opinion: How hunters slaughter dolphins in Japan

CNN’s Yoko Wakatsuki contributed to this report.