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Op-Ed: Dolphin for Dinner? Poor countries increasing dolphin consumption

By Elizabeth Batt     Jan 8, 2012 in Environment
Recently released reports are saying that dolphins are increasingly making it onto the menus of poorer countries around the world. This isn't just bad news for the mammals.
Back in May at the 2nd International Marine Conservation Congress in Canada, Vincent Gallucci of the University of Washington reported that due to shortages of fish products in developing countries, the consumption of shark meat had moved from a "last resort to a primary food item." Now it appears that menus are expanding further to include dolphins and other cetaceans as well.
According to New Scientist, a joint report between the Wildlife Conservation Society in Alaska and the Okapi Wildlife Associates in Quebec, Canada, has revealed that several poorer countries including Brazil, India, coastal countries in west Africa and the Philippines, are turning towards cetaceans such as dolphins, whales and manatees to feed their families.
In developing countries with limited resources for public health education, primary research into health issues occurs on a much lower scale than higher-income countries. Families forced to exist on a day-to-day basis, care little for research studies despite evidence suggesting that eating cetaceans poses a significant health issue – poisoning.
Since 2006, Blue in conjunction with Elsa Nature Conservancy, has been studying the toxicity of dolphin meat in Japan, in particular levels of mercury and organic pollutants such as PCBs. PCBs or polychlorinated biphenyl, used as coolants and lubricants for a variety of electrical equipment first came into use in the 1930s and have posed a significant threat to our environment ever since.
By the 1970s, PBCs had been linked via studies to cancer and other health problems forcing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ban their use in 1979. Despite the ban, they have persisted in the environment for decades says the Environmental Working Group, leaching "the chemical into soil and water" and contaminating "the marine food chain."
A further health issue connected to the eating of cetaceans comes from mercury. Mercury is a globally dispersed contaminant common to natural sources such as volcanoes and present in small amounts in soil, rock sediments and water. The world's industrialization and the consumption of fossil fuels such as coal, have served to increase the amount of mercury released into the atmosphere where it can circulate for years.
Once mercury enters surface water, a complex process called methylation transforms mercury into a form that can be accumulated in the muscle and fatty tissue of fish. Here methylmercury levels increase as the fish grow and smaller fish are consumed by larger fish. This process, called biomagnification, causes larger concentrations in fish than what is found in the surrounding waters, and in dolphins, it can accumulate to toxic levels.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, "Fish consumption advisories for methylmercury, now account for more than three-quarters of all fish consumption advisories in the United States." In 2000, a National Research Council report into the toxicological effects of methylmercury, said that the population at highest risk were children of women who consume large amounts of fish and seafood. The report estimated that more than 60,000 children are born each year at risk for neurodevelopmental defects due to in utero exposure to methylmercury. is an ocean conservation organization founded in 2000 by Hardy Jones and actor, Ted Danson. Established to protect dolphins, whales and other marine mammals, the organization has been fighting to end the slaughter of dolphins in Japan by exposing the harmful levels of toxins in the marine environment, and the consequences of pollutants on both cetacean and human. uses Japanese facilities and consults with Japanese doctors and scientists for conducting tests on meat taken from Taiji dolphins and hair samples from the people who eat them. Their first test conducted in 2008 on meat from a bottlenose dolphin, "revealed Mercury at 7.20ppm – eighteen times higher than the maximum level permitted under Japanese health standards," says the organization. Furthermore they add, one group of Japanese scientists in 2007, even discovered the presence of PCBs in the breast milk of Japanese women.
Mounting evidence produced or gleaned by both Blue and Japan's, Elsa Conservancy Agency, has consistently revealed the dangers of eating cetaceans, including whales. It is because of their efforts to date that Japan City Councilman Junichiro Yamashita labeled dolphin meat served in local schools, “toxic waste.”
On Nov. 07, 2010 reports Elsa, Okinawa, Nago City Mayor, Susumu Inamine, announced that he had refrained from serving dolphin or whale meat at school lunches until it could be tested. The mayor of Taiji town, Mr. Sangen, responded that the contamination of dolphin meat was just rumor, and he still planned to send dolphin meat from Taiji to the markets in Okinawa.
To appreciate the devastating health effects of methylmercury on the human body, one only has to revisit the terrible Minamata disaster. From 1932 to 1968, Chisso Corporation, a company located in Kumamoto Japan, dumped an estimated 27 tons of mercury compounds into Minamata Bay, poisoning the fish captured and eaten by the Minamata people.
By the mid 1950s, town residents began to exhibit strange symptoms ranging from numbness in lips and limbs, to brain damage and perceived craziness. Over 3,000 people were ultimately diagnosed with 'Minamata Disease,' By 1993, some forty years after the incident, says TED Case Studies, "Japanese courts were still resolving suitable compensation for the victims."
Blue remains convinced that the key to stopping the dolphin hunts in Japan is to focus on the toxic dolphins of Taiji and the dangers posed to the Japanese people who consume them. Former CBS journalist and BlueVoice Executive Director Hardy Jones, told us, "I believe this will ultimately be the way to end the killing – destroy the market for dolphin meat for health reasons."
Jones first encountered the dolphin shunting in Iki, Japan in 1979 and in 1980 filmed the slaughter of hundreds of dolphins. The footage led to an end of killing of dolphins at Iki. In 2002, Jones produced, When Dolphins Cry, which premiered on National Geographic Channels worldwide. The film portrayed the killing of dolphins in Taiji and told the story of the conversion of Izumi Ishii, a former dolphin hunter who became a dolphin advocate.
Jones' efforts also stem from personal experience. In 2003, he was diagnosed with an incurable form of blood cancer linked to chemical toxins. The diagnosis spurred Hardy to seek the sources of the pollutants in his own body and to document their impact on marine life and human beings. The results were revealed in his May 2011 book, The Voice of the Dolphins, published by CreateSpace.
Marine mammals are also suffering the effects of pollution. Back in August, a decline in bottlenose dolphins was linked to pollutants in Cornwall, England, which in turn, were linked to a disease rarely seen in dolphins in that area. PCBs are believed to play a role in lowering the immune systems of dolphins, opening the mammals up to a wealth of new diseases never before seen in the mammals.
Bob Bohle writes at Blue, that "nine of the 10 species with the highest polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) levels are marine mammals." And the number one species with the highest, he says in "The Effects of Ocean Polution in Marine Mammals", is the bottlenose dolphin.
Pollution is devastating mammals and the people that eat them are enduring a biomagnification process of their own. Researchers recently linked the soar in diabetes in Canada’s Inuit communities, to persistent organic pollutants found in the meat and blubber of marine mammals, like pilot whales, beluga and narwhal.
Philippe Grandjean from the University of Southern Denmark further discovered that elderly residents of the Arctic Faroe Islands, who have a long history of eating whale meat, also run a much higher risk of developing the diabetes disease. Grandjean’s study results are available in the May edition of the journal, Epidemiology.
The concern with people in developing countries turning to cetaceans to feed their families is the failure to fully comprehend the potential health issues associated with eating dolphin meat. Research conducted on Taiji dolphins is a ripple that is radiating on a global scale across all oceans."High levels of mercury in marine products," says, "is by no means a problem restricted to Japan. It is a worldwide phenomenon."
Hardy Jones' 2002 film, When Dolphins Cry, will be available for purchase on DVD soon.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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