FILE - In this Sept. 2, 2010, file photo, fishermen drive bottle-nose dolphins into a net during their annual hunt off Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan. A court in central Japan on Friday, May 17, 2019 is hearing arguments over whether dolphin hunting violates the nation’s animal cruelty laws. (Kyodo News via AP, File) (Associated Press)

TOKYO — A court in central Japan began hearing arguments Friday over whether dolphin hunting violates animal cruelty laws.

The plaintiffs are asking the district court in Wakayama prefecture to stop the permits from being issued.

Prefectural Gov. Yoshinobu Nisaka issues the permits for the village of Taiji, where the hunts have drawn protests.

The 2009 Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove” showed the village’s hunts, where dolphins were chased into a cove and bludgeoned to death, turning the waters blood red. In recent years, they changed their hunting method to suffocation.

The plaintiffs, a former Taiji resident and activist Ren Yabuki, and supporters of the case say the killings remain traumatic and painful, despite the new method.

Wakayama conservation official Takashi Uede declined comment on the case but stressed that the prefecture believes the hunts follow the law.

The case does not demand monetary damages but could set a precedent in contesting the legality of the killing, according to Takashi Takano, the lawyer for the plaintiffs. “If these people can’t contest the permit, then who can,” he told The Associated Press.

Taiji officials and fishermen have defended the hunt as tradition and say eating dolphin meat is no different from eating beef or chicken. However, the hunts are also lucrative in that some dolphins are sold into captivity at aquariums and marine shows.

The Japanese government stands behind commercial whaling and is pulling out of the International Whaling Commission. Whalers are making plans to resume commercial hunting in July, for the first time in three decades.

Taiji was expected to be one of the Pacific coastal towns joining the whaling fleet.

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