By Hardy Jones
Dolphins are again dieing on the northern coast of Peru. While reports have raised concern for another mass mortality event (MME) duplicating the one in 2012, the death of ten dolphins over the course of two weeks with no follow-on reports of high rates of stranding does not represent an MME. Dolphins, of course, do die from natural causes.
But thousands of dolphins are dieing from highly UNnatural causes in Peru. Surveys commissioned by BlueVoice and carried out by BlueVoice and Organización Científica para la Conservación de Animales Acuáticos ORCA from December 2012 through February 2013 document a mass slaughter of dolphins for human consumption by fishermen along a large part of the Peruvian coast. This slaughter may cause the death of more dolphins than the infamous drive hunts at Taiji, Japan, portrayed in my films for PBS and National Geographic and by the academy award winning feature film, "The Cove".
Dr. Carlos Yaipen Llanos, president of ORCA, and I conducted surveys in the area of San Jose, a coastal village on the northern coast of Peru. An ORCA team later surveyed villages south of Lima. We found numerous cadavers of dolphins on beaches with clear indications they had been killed then butchered.
Fishermen told us that dolphin hunting is common and takes place at dawn and dusk. Based on interviews with fishermen, Dr. Yaipen Llanos confirmed that butchering often takes place at sea and meat is delivered to shore in plastic bags or boxes.
In the village of Bujama local people approached the ORCA team in a state of dismay, saying "flipper has being killed!" "We were as shocked, as everyone else in the beach", said Dr. Yaipen Llanos. After viewing the body he reported "We found this dolphin right after it was slaughtered, after dusk, around 8pm. We found the dolphin (had) been collected, assassinated and slaughtered specifically for meat extraction and human consumption."
It turns out the hunting of dolphins in Peru is nothing new. It's been going on for decades. Photos going back thirty years show dolphins pulled from the waters off the famous surfing venue of Cerro Azul, just south of Lima. I remember one of the great thrills of my life -had been surfing with dolphins at Cerro Azul during my Peace Corps days in the late 1960s.
According to a paper by Stefan Austermuhle, Executive Director of the Peruvian marine conservation group Mundo Azul (Blue World), during the 1980s and 90s between 15,000 - 20,000 dolphins were killed annually. In 1995 a law was passed prohibiting the practice and numbers of dolphins killed declined dramatically. But the take today is still in the thousands.
While it's illegal to hunt dolphins in Peru there is virtually no enforcement. And recent changes in the law make it legal to take dolphins "accidentally" when they're caught in nets and drowned. And under this law phony accidents most certainly will happen.
Dr Yaipen-Llanos reports that, according to local fishermen, small fishing boats hunting dolphins follow pods mainly at dusk and dawn. The dolphins are caught using nets thrown from caballitos de tortora (small boats constructed from reeds) and then harpooned while still in the net. This is consistent with reports by Mundo Azul in 2003 that "the fishermen encircle whole dolphin schools with nets, catch them with harpoons, lift them aboard and kill them by clubbing them to death".
We learned that in addition to using nets, the fishermen disperse insecticide and oil to kill sea lions and dolphins. The price of dolphin meat can be as little as five Peruvian soles per kilo - about one dollar per pound, making it a very cheap source of protein for poor people. There seems to be no concept among fishermen and consumers that eating meat from an animal that was killed with poison is not a healthy practice.
In December 2012 I joined Dr. Yaipen Llanos in visiting San Jose Mayor Victor Paiva in his municipal office. He openly admitted to eating dolphin meat himself and asked nine other municipal workers if they ate it. All replied that they did. Dr. Yaipen-Llanos asked a woman on the street of San Jose (population 7434) how much dolphin meat was eaten in the village. She replied "the village subsists almost entirely on dolphin meat".
Having been a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru, I am well aware of the poverty and lack of education confronting a large number of Peruvians. I revere dolphins and abhor the act of hunting them but would face something of a dilemma if poor, hungry people hunted dolphins that were safe to eat. While levels of contamination in dolphins does vary from place to place, both organic and heavy metal contamination are distributed on currents throughout the ocean ecosystem. Dolphins are at the height of the marine food chain and bio-accumulate these toxins to high levels of concentration. Our tests on the hair of Mayor Paiva of San Jose showed he had mercury levels more than twelve times higher than the "safe" level recommended by the U.S. EPA. We were unable to test for organic pollutants due to lack of facilities in Peru.
Peru is by no means the only place where fishermen hunt dolphins for food and/or bait to catch sharks. Recent reports from Tanzania document substantial hunting of dolphins to be used to bait sharks which are then finned. Shark fins are considered a delicacy both locally and in Asian markets and bring a lucrative return.
In the West Indies pilot whales and other on a regular basis and meat can be purchased, among other places, in the market at Castries on Dominica.
In a comprehensive paper published in 2011 Robards and Reeves concluded "It is now clear that human consumption of marine mammals is geographically widespread, taxonomically diverse, and often of uncertain sustainability. Since 1990, people in at least 114 countries have consumed one or more of at least 87 marine mammal species."
In many places these hunts are not sustainable. Marine mammals do not reproduce rapidly and use of their bodies to perpetrate such egregious practices as shark fining could extirpate populations of dolphins and other marine mammals in many locations. The current situation demands further research into the reason for the increase in hunting dolphins and other marine mammals as bush meat. More than that, it demands cooperation through international agencies to end the practice of using large-brained mammals for food and bait.