BOGOTA — Shark hunting season ended on Jan. 28 in Taiji, the Japanese village that has become the focus of a worldwide environmentalist outcry. This time Green activists used the Internet to show how 500 bottlenose dolphins were trapped, disabled with nets and harpoons, and then pushed into a cove. Traditional fishermen afloat on a blood-red sea then selected 250 animals to be killed for meat or to sell to marine parks.
This year, the U.S. Ambassador in Japan, Caroline Kennedy, joined the growing chorus of international criticisms when she denounced the custom as inhumane, which promptly provoked the ire of many Japanese.
Yoshinobu Nisaka, governor of the Wakayama Prefecture that includes Taiji, retorted that every country has its eating culture, which should be respected. How can dolphin hunting be characterized as inhumane, he asked, when “we live off cows and pigs?”
The ambassador said nothing in response, but as an environmental journalist, I began to ruminate on the debate.
While we may find the images of dolphins being shot to death revolting, it’s hard to deny that the governor has a point. Why are we outraged with the deaths of 500 dolphins but remain oblivious to the 10 million cattle heads waiting to be slaughtered in Colombia? It was a question worth presenting to certain prominent environmentalists.
Fernando Trujillo, head of the Omacha Foundation in Bogotá that works to safeguard the Amazon river dolphin, believes the big difference between killing dolphins and cattle for human consumption is that cattle are raised and thus “produced,” while dolphins are taken from their habitat.
“We have a technological utility that allows cattle species not to be threatened, while in Japan they are not rearing dolphins,” he says. While beef and pork are part of the Western family’s diet, says Trujillo, taking dolphin meat off the shop shelves would not threaten Japan’s food security. “Dolphin meat is like the tortoise or iguana eggs eaten in Colombia. Nobody will die of hunger if we stop eating them,” he says.
Intellectual honesty about our food
Only one of Trujillo’s arguments seems reasonable to me. If the criterion for deciding what enters my mouth were whether it was taken from its natural habitat or raised in a barn, we would have a global problem. Much of the fish eaten in the world comes from the natural environment. The ants we eat in Colombia’s Santander department are caught in the wild. Hundreds of communities live off hunting.
The other argument sounds better — only eating species that are not endangered. First check the health of the population, whether dolphins or cows, then decide if we want them on the dining table.
Animal rights activists protest in Manila on Sept. 2013 — Photo: Ezra Acayan/ZUMA
María Claudia Díaz-Granados, director of Conservation International’s marine programs in Colombia, has a different argument. She says dolphins cannot be compared to fish, invertebrates, molluscs or other marine resources consumed by humans. “Marine mammals, and especially dolphins, aside from being species with low reproduction rates, are fundamental to maintaining the balance of the oceans for being top predators,” she says. “Only small populations that have shown that their survival depends on consumption of such mammals should be allowed to hunt them. That is the case with the Inuit in the North Pole.”
If I’ve understood well, the choice of what to eat depends here, in principle, on the species’ role in the ecological balance. That is interesting, but problematic because doesn’t every species have its role? Were we not told that removing any piece of the food chain would alter all of it? Wouldn’t this argument start a great many arguments on biology in people’s kitchens?
The straightforward argument of vegetarians is easier to digest: Humans do not need to eat animal meat to live. Aníbal Vallejo Rendón, president of Medellín’s Society for the Protection of Animals, says the killing of dolphins is perfectly comparable with large-scale livestock farming in countries like Colombia.
“The same predatory human being is destroying marine eco-systems and exterminating forests to replace them with pasture land to feed livestock,” he says. “Dolphins are separated from their offspring to be killed, cows confined in rows and forced to live in misery as they are fattened, and end up served as a meat product.”
Vallejo, a father and grandfather of vegetarians, insists farming could provide humans with all the vegetable proteins they need. “The problem is people don’t want to understand, and nobody cares about the countryside here,” he says.
His brother, novelist Fernando Vallejo, is sensitive to the plight of animals and sees very little difference between humans and other mammals, so he might say much the same. This is how he put it in a 2006 essay, titled “My Other Neighbor” (Mi otro prójimo): “We are just one of millions and millions of species. Compare yourself with a dog and you will see you both have two eyes, two ears, a nose with two nasal orifices, a mouth or snout with two sets of teeth, a circulatory system with veins and arteries and red blood ... and above all a nervous system, with which you and the dog feel pain, hunger, thirst, anxiety, cheerfulness and fear,” he wrote. “It is a nervous system which produces the soul.”
Readers can determine their own opinions on the matter. Though still not a vegetarian myself, I am inclined toward the view of Fernando Vallejo.
Meanwhile, one clarification is in order. Behind Japan’s defensive discourse is another lucrative market. Dozens of dolphins are separated from their offspring to be sold to marine parks and water shows, forced to live and die far away from their habitats, in very different conditions. A dolphin can fetch around $500,000, so think twice the next time you want to buy tickets at your local Sea World.