It is both intriguing and bewildering watching the fallout and resulting hype over the documentary The Cove
which portrays animal activists, led by Flipper trainer Ric O’Barry, outing the not-so “secret” practice of dolphin fishing in Japan.
At the heart of this political campaign is the emotional bond that we have been conditioned to believe exists between dolphin and human; that somehow dolphins are more human than other animals and thus deserving of something more than what we give to other animals. On the other side is a tradition spanning thousands of years across many cultures all around the world; that dolphins are a genuine food source.
According to the campaign material on various websites in support of or directly related to the movie, the purpose of the film is to alert people to the “heinous” activity and gain support in demanding that the Japanese government ban the practice. They raise only the following few points:
- 20,000 dolphins and porpoises are killed each year in Japan;
- the way in which the dolphins are killed is "brutal";
- Japanese consumers are being sold dolphin meat;
- the meat can contain high levels of mercury; and
- the meat is often labelled as whale meat.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the aim is to prevent dolphins and porpoises from being killed (full stop) and that the other issues (the horror of death; that Japanese people are barbaric for eating dolphin meat; health and safety of consumers is at risk due to toxins; and illegal trading practices include mislabelling of seafood) are merely designed to attract a sympathetic audience from as far and wide as possible.
Subsequently, I’m not going to be drawn on debating some of these points in detail as they are simply red herrings, which I will explain shortly. My intention herein is to play Devil’s advocate by taking a philosophical look at each of the other points raised by the filmmakers to determine whether the practice of dolphin fishing is indeed as bad as they suggest.
Ultimately the question open for debate is whether dolphin meat should be available for consumption. Individual moral values aside, there are only three points to logically consider when determining whether we should eat a particular food (be it beast or plant):
- Is the food fit for human consumption? It must be nutritious, palatable and have no ill side effects.
- Will consumption hasten the extinction of that species or be detrimental to the population in a particular area?
- Are the practices of bringing the food to the table the best available? Are they environmentally sound, humane, hygienic, efficient, competitive and honest?
Let’s look at these in detail for the example of dolphins and porpoises in light of the movie, The Cove. First, dolphins, whales and other cetaceans have been an integral part of the diet of numerous cultures for many thousands of years. Technically it is a nutritious and pleasant food to consume if you don't draw any conscious familiarity to Flipper. Those that are squeamish about the concept are likely to have similar issues with eating Bambi or Thumper.
Concerns about toxins, such as cadmium or mercury, are justified but are equally applicable to other seafood caught from the same waters as the dolphins. All pollution eventually reaches the oceans, so seafood has experienced increased levels of toxicity in recent decades and the developing nations of Asia are the leading culprits.
Similarly, we have examples in Australia where a cheap fish is substituted for an expensive one, such as barramundi. Labelling and toxicity are matters for the relevant agencies to address and most consumers are right to expect their food to be labelled correctly and to know that it meets health guidelines, no matter whether it was chicken or whale.
These are not issues unique to Japan or the dolphin trade and both arguments are simply red herrings. Thus, there is no gastronomic or biological reason for banning dolphin as a food item. Let’s move on.
As to the second question of extinction, my research indicates that this isn't a critical issue for dolphins like it is with, say, whales, the great cats or the orang-utans. With the exception of a few localised problems (e.g. Solomon Islands dolphin population being relatively small), global dolphin populations are quite safe. 20,000 per year may seem like a large number, but it represents about one third of a per cent (0.0033 per cent) of the world dolphin population.
“According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, there are likely more than six million dolphins worldwide. A few species are at risk of extinction, but most number in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions.” (National Geographic, August 2009)
In comparison, it is estimated that there are fewer than 5,000 blue whales, no more than 8,000 right whales, less than 50,000 fin whales and about only 60,000 humpback whales in existence (International Whaling Commission
). But even these represent high populations when you look at the plight of the tigers with less than 7,500 worldwide with three of the eight sub-species already declared extinct (The Global Tiger Forum
On the flipside chickens are almost exclusively farmed to meet human food needs and rarely exist in the wild. According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO
) “The world population of domestic chickens increased by 160%, from 13.5 billion in 1998 to 35 billion in 2006” (Assist America
). The vast majority of these birds are killed for food every year and our growing demand ironically ensures the survival of that species, as they almost certainly could not survive in the wild. Modern cattle, swine and sheep also enjoy high populations almost exclusively to serve human needs.
It’s important to highlight some points about farming. Apart from the fact that it would be extremely difficult and expensive to "farm" dolphins, captive breeding (modern farming) isn't always good for the animal, the species or the consumer. It requires more intensive land use and is often reliant on antibiotics, pesticides and nutritional supplements. Additionally, pollutants are a common issue across most Asian seafood so if a dolphin farm was developed (like a tuna farm) it would probably exist in the same polluted waters.
To argue, as I have heard some do, that dolphins are somehow different to other animals because they are not farmed is once again another red herring. If we were to farm dolphins in the same way that we farm tuna or salmon would that make the practice more acceptable? Perhaps not for those who are deep in the heart of the moral campaign. That makes it merely a straw man argument.
So now we come to the issue of herding and culling. Is it an unavoidable fact or an inhumane brutality? Again, let’s look at it from an objective perspective. Humans are predominantly omnivores. We eat meat, therefore we must kill animals. Killing involves shock, pain and bloodshed as anyone would expect. Unfortunately it is not efficient to put every animal “to sleep” with a chemical before slaughtering it. What we all would hope is that we engage best practice in our methodology. If we discover a better way to kill a cow that doesn’t drastically increase the costs, we should employ it.
The question therefore, is not about whether the practice of herding dolphins into coves for slaughter is barbaric, brutal or inhumane. Instead it is about whether a suitable alternative exists. I have found none, but I’m open to being educated on the subject and will gladly campaign for the worldwide introduction of such methods if they exist.
Currently it can take a few minutes for a dolphin to die after it is cut open and bleeds to death - the same method is used to slaughter pigs, albeit after they receive an electric shock and they are hung upside down to hasten the bloodletting. I have a feeling that electricity and water would not be a good recipe for dolphin fishing, but perhaps the hanging of the carcass would make the event swifter and ease any suffering.
There is a distinct similarity between herding cetaceans and trawling for fish, however the trawl is less efficient due to the large amount of by-catch taken. Additionally, fish can take much longer to “suffocate” out of the water, resulting in higher levels of stress than other produce.
The only other difference is the cuteness and human-like qualities we observe in the prey. Anyone who has owned pet fish, mice, birds, cats or dogs and studied their behaviour might see that dolphins are hardly unique and that it is we humans instead who have the cute animal-like qualities. Cuteness is hardly a rational argument for deciding what to eat.
In conclusion, if we have a food that is palatable, fit for consumption, honestly labelled and reaches our plate in a manner equal to that of other produce, as long as that food is from a sustainable population and not at risk of future extinction then there is no argument against it continuing to be available. Whether you choose to buy or consume it is entirely up to you.
Certainly, no adult should be forced to eat kangaroo if they don’t want to, but please don’t argue that I shouldn’t eat it because it’s cute, has feelings, isn’t humanely killed or simply because it happens to be on our coat of arms. Similarly, the arguments don’t stack up with dolphin!
At the current levels of dolphin fishing, matched against wild populations there is nothing to suggest we should stop the practice of dolphin fishing. It is simply not in the same league as whaling. However, there is clear evidence that we could improve the method of culling and that we should proceed with haste in that direction.
To those readers who might like to jump in and claim that I have skirted around or ignored the moral issues, please feel free to do so now. Your morals are your own and they should direct your life, not anyone else’s and least of all mine.
All I'm asking is that people understand why they are reacting in horror upon watching The Cove - ultimately because it’s a cute dolphin and not an ugly pig.
Ask yourself “if a dolphin farm existed (like a tuna farm), that was free from pollutants and they were slaughtered as humanely as possible - would you allow dolphin meat to be sold?” If not, why not? Can you find a single reason that isn’t purely emotional and tied to your programmed conditioning of what a cute dolphin represents?
For the record, I eat meat - I know how it gets to my plate and I'm OK with it. Most people don't want to know because knowledge means accepting responsibility.