Poor nations turn to dolphin meat

Posted: 13 August 2011

 Martin Robards and Randy Reeves have spent years gathering data about the hunting of marine mammals, from dolphins to dugongs. Their resulting map shows that dolphin hunting in poor countries where fish stocks are being depleted is on the increase.

"It was a lot more common than we expected," 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 in the hunting of marine mammals, 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.

Pilot whale slaughter, Faroes
Pilot whales being killed and landed on a Faroe Island beach. Photo © Simon Heptinstall

In most places, there is a taboo against eating marine mammals because of their 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.

Limited data

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.

This is a shortened version of a blog which first appeared in www.nature.com

 The map produced by Robards and Reeves was presented to the Society for Conservation Biology's International Marine Congress on May 11, 2011.