A Taste For Flipper

Japan’s taste for whale meat has helped spur dramatic televised confrontations on the high seas between whalers and anti-whaling activists. But the Japanese aren’t the only ones with a taste for marine mammals, a new study finds.

Despite “persistent debates over the appropriate relationship between people and marine mammals, the actual extent and character of marine mammal consumption remain ambiguous,” Martin D. Robards of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission in Bethesda, Maryland and Randall R. Reeves of Okapi Wildlife Associates in Quebec, Canada write in Biological Conservation.

To get a meatier picture of marine mammal consumption between 1970 and 2009, the researchers compiled about 900 sources of information, ranging from anthropological studies and government reports to interviews with researchers and government officials. Then, they identified cases where people either intentionally killed marine mammals to eat them, or ate them after the animals became entangled in fishing nets or became stranded on shore. They included only cases of consumption, and not instances where people had killed marine mammals to control their populations, or use the carcasses for things like animal feed, oil, furs, or aphrodisiacs.

Since 1970, at least 92 species of marine mammals “have been either captured deliberately or incidentally or obtained opportunistically for human consumption in at least 125 countries,” they report. In at least 27 nations, people eat hundreds or thousands of marine mammals. In Australia, however, they eat just a single species – the dugong, a sea cow – while in Japan, “people may consume a suite of as many as 32 species. People in at least 12 countries consumed 15 or more species of marine mammals; six of these countries were in Asia, four in the Arctic, one in South America, and one in West Africa.”

“Consumption of marine mammals is considered a significant aspect of food security and cultural well being in many regions, and provides some economic (including cash) benefits to people in at least 54 countries,” they note.

Some species that used to be eaten, however, appear to be off the plate. The researchers found no evidence that people are eating five species of cetaceans – southern right whale, blue whale, spectacled porpoise, Commerson’s dolphin, and Heaviside’s dolphin – that were reported as food items in the 1970s or 1980s.

Although targeted hunts for big whales are down since the 1970s, the “capture of smaller marine mammals in fishing gear has increased in many coastal regions and is now regarded as perhaps the greatest threat to whales, dolphins, and porpoises,” they write. They suspect that stronger synthetic nets are making it easier to catch marine mammals, and that overfishing and economic incentives are making it more attractive to eat them. “Even in areas with stronger governance institutions, fishing nets provide an efficient but often relatively inconspicuous means of capturing marine mammals,” they note.

There’s not enough information about many populations to know if these takes are sustainable, they write. And “encouraging more widespread local stewardship” will require understanding what role poverty and other factors are playing in consumption decisions. “In regions where hunger and poverty are causing new consumption patterns that result in greater use of marine mammal products,” they conclude, “measures imposed from outside to reduce ‘bycatch’ in fisheries or prevent the deliberate hunting of marine mammals, without somehow addressing the underlying factors of food and economic security, are unlikely to be effective.” David Malakoff | October 30, 2011

Source: Robards, M.D., Reeves, R.R. The global extent and character of marine mammal consumption by humans: 1970–2009. Biol. Conserv. (2011), doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2011.07.034

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