This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
The killing of small cetaceans (dolphins and porpoises) by both direct and indirect fisheries, is a global crisis. These largely uncontrolled and unregulated hunts; pose an immediate threat to the survival of several populations around the world. Most hunts are rarely observed, leaving the true extent of the problem well hidden.
Until recently, the desperate plight of the world's dolphins and porpoises has gone relatively unnoticed, even though an estimated 300,000 small cetaceans are killed annually.
Their mortality is rising at an alarming rate with fisherman specifically targeting dolphins.
The list of countries currently engaged in directed hunts both legal and illegal is horrifyingly extensive and includes Sri Lanka. Methods used to trap and kill these marine mammals vary from nets and knives to rifles and hand held harpoons. In Sri Lanka, harpoons are used to kill dolphins.
Anouk Illangakoon, an environmental scientist and cetacean researcher from Sri Lanka explains -
"Basically the [dolphin] harpoon fishery has come about in the last 20 years I would say. What happened was that with the bycatch in the gillnets, people started finding a use for dolphins - therefore the market grew. Now that there is a market, fishermen in certain areas have resorted to this directed harpoon technique of taking dolphins.
Very often what happens is that if they don't get a good fish catch and on their way back they come across a school of dolphins, they will take as many as they can, just to cover their cost. They know it can be sold now. It happens in only some areas in the country, mainly on the south coast to areas on the west coast. But, within the last ten years or so, I have found that this practice is spreading from place to place.
Basically Spinner Dolphins bowride all the time with any kind of boat. If the sea is calm, harpooning is not a problem to the fishermen, because the fishermen use small boats generally and they're close to the water so very often when dolphins were bowriding, all they have to do is go on the bow and use a handheld harpoon which is a very simple technique.
I wouldn't actually want to give numbers but I would say that if you look at the total take of dolphins in the country with gillnets and everything, I would say that 20-25% is due to harpoon."
The initial reasons for hunting dolphins around the world, included meat for human consumption or use as bait. In South America, dolphins are killed in the thousands specifically for use as bait in crab traps. The meat from Commerson's, Peale's and Black dolphins is cheap and more efficient, as it lasts in the traps three times longer before disintegrating.
All cetaceans are protected in Sri Lanka although the law is rarely enforced.
Photo courtesy of Anouk Ilangakoon
Some of the most barbaric hunts are the drive fisheries that involve herding a pod into the shallows, blocking their escape route and butchering them with knives. In the Faroe Islands, pilot whales have been killed in this manner for hundreds of years. In Japan, meat from
Striped dolphins and Dall's porpoises killed in drive fisheries are sold in restaurants and supermarkets, providing an affordable alternative to more scarce and expensive whale meat. Local populations of both species are on the brink of extinction.
In Sri Lanka, meat primarily from Spinner and Risso's dolphins is a cheap, readily available source of protein.
"Dolphin flesh is cheaper than the more populous kinds of fish people eat and is also a cheap source of protein. So, the people who eat it find it economical to eat dolphins rather than eat a more expensive kind of fish or some other kind of meat which is always more expensive."
There appears to be an increasingly disturbing trend that labels dolphins and porpoises as 'fish thieves'. In many parts of the world, small cetaceans are being used as convenient scapegoats and are blamed for consuming and scaring away all of the fish, which in the
minds of local fisherman, justifies the hunt. Common sense dictates that in many areas, the scarcity of fish is a direct result of overfishing by the fisherman themselves.
"Well, in the last 15 years or so, I have seen an increase [in the take of dolphins], but I have seen it spread from certain areas where it didn't happen when I first started working - it is happening there now."
Dolphins are being killed with harpoons in Sri Lanka in unknown numbers, in areas where catches of the usual target fish are poor. With the decline in fish stocks, the number of dolphins killed is likely to grow. (May 1990)
Hunting these animals is illegal here, but the law is rarely if ever enforced.
"Yes, all cetaceans are protected in Sri Lankan waters - actually there are two pieces of legislation that cover it. One is the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance, which covers all wildlife and all cetaceans are protected under that. Cetaceans are also protected under the Fisheries Act which is a different piece of legislation."
Unfortunately, governments often prefer to turn a blind eye to the cruel and wasteful dolphin slaughter that threatens the survival of local populations, rather than admit to failure in their fisheries policies.
"That again is a problem because we have this heavy bycatch. So, for instance, even law enforcement authorities don't know how to differentiate what is bycatch, what has been harpooned or what is a dolphin in some cases. The law enforcement authorities themselves don't know what a dolphin looks like sometimes. So enforcement is a problem. Lack of knowledge is one thing and also there is this indirect take, which is not preventable, but yet it is illegal. It is illegal to have it on your possession or to sell it. So even the bycatch, even if it is accidentally caught, it is an offense to sell it, therefore you can prosecute people, but it doesn't happen as often as it should. Although the law itself is adequate, enforcement is a problem."
Immediate action must be taken or many dolphin populations will disappear. There is a desperate need for better fisheries management in order to deter fisherman from hunting dolphins. We have a chance to act now and ensure that the dolphins do not suffer the same fate as the great whales, whose populations were decimated by commercial whaling.
"Although there is a directed take [of dolphins] now, it could actually decrease because of [the establishment of] a cetacean watching industry. For one thing, it would make local people aware of cetaceans, they would see them alive and know what they really are and that would create public concern within the country, which I think is important."
Written by Genevieve Johnson