YURI KAGEYAMA

Associated Press

TOKYO (AP) -- A central Japanese town targeted by an American film for its annual dolphin hunt said Friday it is checking residents for mercury poisoning that may be caused by regularly eating whale and dolphin meat.

Taiji won notoriety after the recent release of "The Cove," a documentary that shows fishermen herding dolphins into a hidden cove and killing them with spearlike poles.

The film argues that dolphin meat is too dangerously laced with mercury to be consumed.

The tests on strands of hair are being offered free of charge to any of Taiji's 3,500 residents who want them, a town official overseeing health and welfare said Friday.

The official denied the tests are related to the movie. He reiterated the town's position that eating dolphin and whale meat is part of a 400-year-old culture and said the town has never had any apparent cases of mercury poisoning.

The tests began in June and will continue through March next year, the official said by telephone, requesting anonymity because of worries about media coverage.

Many Taiji residents are suspicious about the portrayal of its annual dolphin hunt, especially by the foreign media.

Taiji, which in the past has killed some 2,000 dolphins every year, has not killed any since this year's hunting season began last month, its fisheries agency has said. The village has captured some dolphins to be sold to aquariums, and has continued to kill whales.

"The Cove" will be screened next week at the Tokyo International Film Festival. It was added to the festival partly because of pressure from abroad.

Japan hunts about 20,000 dolphins a year, according to government figures.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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