News blog

Poor nations turn to dolphin meat

dolphin260.jpgPosted on behalf of Nicola Jones

Martin Robards and Randy Reeves have spent years gathering all the data they could get their hands on about the hunting of marine mammals, from dolphins to dugongs. Their resulting map, presented at the Society for Conservation Biology’s International Marine Conservation Congress in Victoria on 15 May, comes with some surprises. “It was a lot more common than we expected, and Randy has been looking at this for decades,” says Robards, who is a program director for the Wildlife Conservation Society in Alaska. Reeves is with Okapi Wildlife Associates in Hudson Quebec.

Unsurprisingly, Japan takes top place, thanks to its whale and dolphin hunts. And Arctic seal hunting means that marine mammal takes in the north are also high. “What you can do there to control the hunt is being done. But in other places it’s falling through the cracks,” says Robards.

In most places, there is a taboo against eating marine mammals – because of their ‘cute’ factor, charisma and intelligence. But a decline in global fish stocks (in particular from the developing world to feed Europe) has driven many poor nation populations to eating bushmeat, including primates, and the ‘bushmeat of the sea’, including dolphins (which has a dark, gamey meat like venison). At the same time, fishermen in these nations have switched from using hemp-rope fishnets to nets made of modern fibres, often thanks to international aid efforts to help people get more food. While dolphins typically tear through rope nets, the modern nets are “efficient dolphin killing machines” says Robards. Accidental dolphin bycatch has created a market for their meat, either to eat or to use as shark bait.

Poor villagers who wind up turning to dolphins to feed their families can spread a new cultural acceptance of the practice, overcoming taboos, says Robards. This seems to be happening in Madagascar, where dolphin hunting is a new problem that is creeping upwards along the coast, at the scale of hundreds of animals a year.

Robards and Reeves found marine-mammal hunting hotspots in Peru, Venezuela, the Gulf of Guinea, Sri Lanka, the Solomon Islands, Taiwan, and northern Australia (where aborignial peoples hunt dugongs). In each of these nations, thousands of ‘marine bushmeat’ animals are taken each year. The researchers declined to come up with a global estimate for total marine mammal take because the data is still so patchy.

Only a handful of species of dolphins are listed as endangered. But for many species there simply isn’t enough data to know how they are doing, says Robards. Dolphin hunting is illegal in most nations, but unregulated in many places where it is an emerging problem. “With slow-reproducing species like these, unregulated takes are a bad idea,” says Sarah Frias-Torres, an adjunct scientist at the Ocean Research and Conservation Association in Florida. The International Whaling Commission has considered regulating dolphin hunts, but has limited itself to 13 large species of the planet’s 88 cetaceans.

Making the practice illegal doesn’t necessarily lower hunt numbers. When Peru took this path, it simply drove dolphin hunting underground, says Robards. “They’re still taking the same number each year,” he says. A better solution is to work with local populations to explore alternative food sources, and to educate people about the animals, he says. “In Bangladesh, people were moving to the coast from the interior who thought dolphins were a kind of fish,” he notes. A grass-roots project there used colouring books to teach children and parents that dolphins breathe air, can drown, and have their young like people. “That produces a real sense of wonderment,” Robards says.

Photo: Sarasota Dolphin Research Program


  1. Report this comment

    Donni De-Ville said:

    Rice is the staple diet of the Tibetan Monks, so surely rice will keep their tummies full, along with fruit, or any vegetable they can grow?

    As for ‘meat’ we know it is not necessary, and is unhealthy for the human system. All types of disease can start from meat eating, not to mention bloating and badly digested food causing intestinal problems.

    Rice on the other hand, can be flavoured with pickles, potato mixed in, eggs, and even with soup to turn in into a larger meal. However, I am pleased that the people are learning that Dolphins are Mammals and not fish. They are practically human apart from our habitats.

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    Kevin said:

    “As for ‘meat’ we know it is not necessary, and is unhealthy for the human system. All types of disease can start from meat eating, not to mention bloating and badly digested food causing intestinal problems.” {Citations please}

    This is a very bold statement considering its false to a major degree. Protein garnered from digesting animal fats is ESSENTIAL to the human body makeup. Saturated fats etc are building blocks to healthy human being.

    Popular science is not always legitimate science.

    P.S. Find me a conclusive study that proves cholesterol and fat is unhealthy to the human body. I have yet to find one.

    A lot like the challenge that the income tax is a legitimate law.(Yet to be found in any books that is.)

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    micheal said:

    This is absolutely ridicules in this day and age that still people have to resort to such things as killing dolphins to survive,the politicians can get money together to send people to war but can not help desperate people who need to endanger our mammals to survive

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    Steve said:

    While I am appalled at the fact that people choose to eat dolphin meat it is hard not to feel that people are imposing their cultural standards on others. To Hindus it must seem disgusting that people eat cows. As long as an animal is not endangered it is up to countries/cultures to decide for themselves what is right and wrong. I would not condone it myself due to the intelligence factor rather than the cuteness factor.

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    Dolphin Information said:

    While not trying to fall in a discussion if it is right or wrong to eat dolphin meat, it is certain that unregulated consume and killing of dolphin species will lead to extermination of several species of cetaceans. As the article mentions there are only some species of cetaceans endangered but who in the job of killing dolphins is an expert to recognize which species is endangered and which one is not. Besides, the market will make them kill everything as always happen. Most of the species that live close to the shores are the most endangered.

    Yes, there is world crisis on food, but turning into cetaceans will not be the solution. We will just kill them until extinction and then what.

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    rob liu said:

    That is really sad that this is happening in some countries, what is the deal with these people?

    I can’t see how dolphines would be easier to catch than common fish.

    In the Phillipines, the local fisherman have an amazing partnership with dolphines, where the dolphines will herd fish to fishermans nets. The fisherman will meet their end of the bargain by distributing some of the catch to the dolphines.

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    Alyssa Harrell said:

    I knew that net fishing was dangerous for dolphins, but I didn’t realize it was STILL a growing problem. We have come up with so much technology that it’s hard to believe we haven’t solved this problem yet.

    The Bangladesh coloring book project interests me because as a homeschool project I wrote a children’s book on the same topic.

    Thank you for this article!

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