10 May 2015

Having dolphins for dinner

The capture and consumption of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) is considered by most to be an activity conducted by several developed countries who have gained notoriety for their continued hunts for these animals, even in the face of considerable international pressure and negative press. In much of the western world at least, cetaceans are no longer seen as an exploitable resource, but rather as charismatic and fascinating animals in need of protection. But the whaling conducted by Japan and the few other countries often vilified by conservationists is only one small part of the web in which whales, dolphins, humans and our fishing activities are lethally entangled.
When they think of whaling, most people think of Japan, but the fishing fleets of many countries are responsible, both directly and indirectly, for the mortality of whales and dolphins.

I was approached some time ago by a conservation group which had received some photographs of dolphins on a beach in Ghana, West Africa. In one of the images, the dolphin had been cut cleanly in half, suggesting it might have been in the process of being butchered. The photographer was not a native of Ghana and had expressed concern to the group that there might be a fishery for dolphins, but at the same time attested that according to their local contacts, catching and eating dolphins was not part of the local culture. 

When I was contacted about this story, it was with some shock on the part of the conservation group. They had no idea that dolphins could be considered as a food source anywhere in Africa. They planned to make a press release, they said, and asked only that I identify the species, and add my opinion as to whether this was, as stated, an uncommon occurrence in Ghana. A big issue lies behind this request; but it is not the issue the conservation group imagined.

A butchered Atlantic humpback dolphin in Congo. The meat was going to be sold at the local market. 

Dolphins are indeed caught by artisanal fishers in West Africa, and elsewhere in the developing world. Whether they are caught accidentally or intentionally is difficult to ascertain, and depends on the region; most are either shared amongst the community and eaten, or sold. But that is only one part of a more complex story. During my work in The Gambia, Senegal and Guinea-Bissau between 2007 and 2012, I was able to collect information on the occurrence of dolphin bycatch (accidental capture in fishing gear) and the ways in which these dolphins were used by local communities. The findings have been summarised in a recently-published paper in the journal Human Ecology. The paper describes how communities in West Africa use cetaceans for food and occasionally as a medicine but more importantly, it explores the factors which may drive communities to catch and consume cetaceans. 

Many fishers told me they would rather not catch a dolphin because of the damage it caused to their nets or because of superstitions surrounding dolphins' abilities to save drowning fishers (but only, of course, those fishers who have never eaten dolphin meat!). It seems unlikely that many fishers target dolphins in West Africa. But many older fishers spoke of how difficult it had become to catch enough fish, and in such circumstances, if part of their catch included an already-dead dolphin, they would be unlikely to waste what to them is simply another source of food.

On my first visit to The Gambia, I met Matar, a young man in his twenties who worked at the hotel where I was staying. His father and grandfather had both been fishermen, and Matar had fished with his father when he was a teenager. He told me that his grandfather had never used a boat - he used to catch more than enough to feed his family by simply casting a net from shore. His father had a small pirogue (wooden canoe), and fished a short distance from shore. By the time Matar had finished school, he saw how fishers his age had invested in bigger pirogues with outboard motors. So depleted were the inshore fish stocks that they had to travel far offshore; they spent several days at sea in order to catch enough to cover their fuel costs for these long, dangerous fishing trips. He decided that a job at a hotel might provide him with a more reliable income.

So why are small-scale fishermen and women in Africa now struggling to catch enough to survive? The answer has been understood by fisheries scientists for some time, but seems to have gone comfortably under the radar of European consumers. Having depleted its own fish stocks, Europe now sends its industrial fishing vessels to African waters, diminishing fish stocks there and leaving less for local fishers to catch. Coastal communities throughout Africa are often impoverished, isolated and dependent on whatever they catch as their sole source of protein. European fisheries and consumers are directy responsible for the decline in Africa's fish stocks and thus also for the choices African fishing communities make when faced with these declines - choices which may include turning to dolphins, manatees and other endangered animals as alternative food sources.
Atlantic humpback dolphins inhabit shallow coastal waters and thus are often caught by artisanal fishers in West Africa.

The bycatch of coastal dolphins in African waters - in particular the Atlantic humpback dolphin, found only on the West coast of Africa and thought to be in decline - is a conservation concern. Ultimately, the most effective means of minimising bycatch and directed take of dolphins in African waters will likely be to manage fish stocks in a way which prioritises the needs of local coastal communities, rather than international demand. But is that something that we are willing, and able, to do?

Addendum (21 May 2015): Greenpeace recently reported that Chinese fleets are fishing illegally in West African waters, whilst sending false location data to suggest they are on land or off Mexico. Many of the vessels were unlicensed or fishing in protected areas. This places West Africa's fish stocks under even more pressure.
The finding of the study described in this blog post are published in: 
Leeney, RH, Dia IM, Dia M. 2015. Food, family, pharmacy? Bycatch, direct take and consumption of dolphins in West Africa.  
Interview work was funded by WWF-WAMER, Wetlands International and the Mohammed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund and was supported by Noe Conservation. 
Many thanks to Tim Collins (WCS) for providing photographs for this post. 

1 comment:

Nicholas Tregenza said...

EU exploitation of W. African waters is a long-running scandal, with payments to the countries failing to benefit the artisanal fisheries that suffer, and local fishers being put at risk at night by EU vessels that can't see them. http://cfp-reformwatch.eu covers some of this - but it's still getting little attention. At least the EU is gradually learning how to manange its own fisheries.