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The hunting of whales, dolphins and porpoises illegally for bait found to be more widespread than first thought

A report by Sandra Altherr and Nicola Hodgins Edited by Sue Fisher, Kate O’Connell, D.J. Schubert, and Dave Tilford


A global review of the impacts of hunting on small whales, dolphins and porpoises


The hunting of small cetaceans (i.e., all toothed whales, except the sperm whale) for food or fishing bait is far more widespread than most people realise. While in recent years public attention has focused on hunts in Japan (specifically in Taiji) and the Danish Faroe Islands, small cetaceans are deliberately killed at similar or even higher levels in several other regions. Overall, approximately 100,000 small whales, dolphins, and porpoises are intentionally killed each year worldwide. In most cases, these are unregulated, or even illegal, hunts. Typically, they are unsustainable and poorly documented and their impact on populations is unknown. Where legislation is in place, appropriate control and rigorous enforcement measures are often lacking. This report aims to give a global overview of the scale of small cetacean hunts, the number of individuals and species targeted, and their ecological impact.

By far, the world’s largest kill of small cetaceans is in Peru, where up to 15,000 dolphins are killed annually to be used as bait in shark fisheries. Other countries (see Section 3) where direct takes of more than 1,000 individuals annually occur are Brazil, Canada, Greenland,1 Ghana, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Japan, Madagascar, Malaysia, Nigeria, Republic of Korea, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Venezuela, and Taiwan, Province of China/Chinese Taipei (henceforth Taiwan (PRC)). Up to several hundred small cetaceans are hunted each year in the United States (Alaska), Cameroon, Colombia, Faroe Islands,2 Guinea Bissau, Kiribati, Myanmar, Pakistan, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Senegal, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Vietnam, and Tanzania.

While the deliberate hunting of small cetaceans is declining in some areas, in most regions the killing of small cetaceans has dramatically increased over the last two decades both in terms of number of individuals and range of species targeted. In 2004, a report for the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) listed 45 small cetacean species as threatened by directed catches (Culik 2004) while this report identifies 56 species that are actively hunted. Moreover, many recent studies report an increase in the number of animals killed in small cetacean hunts with regard to numbers of individuals taken (e.g., da Silva et al. 2018; Cunha et al. 2015; Salinas et al. 2014; Van Waerebeeket al. 2014; Debrah et al. 2010). Mintzer et al. (2018) warn that dolphin hunts may expand even further in some regions. The reasons for killing small cetaceans differ from country to country; some species have been hunted by indigenous people in a number of places around the world for millennia. In other regions, especially in parts of West Africa, Asia, and in other areas where industrialised and often illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is overexploiting fish resources, small cetaceans are increasingly hunted as aquatic wild meat3 to meet the protein demands of a growing human population.

An increasingly common trend is the evolution from opportunistic use of dolphins entangled in fishing nets (‘bycatch’), to the growth of a market for their meat as food or fishing bait and the development of a targeted hunt to meet the ensuing demand. Some species are killed because they are perceived as competitors for commercial fish species. In many areas, small cetacean hunting is unselective—no specific species, size, or sex is targeted; instead, the most easily accessible— individuals are hunted, making river and coastal dolphins especially vulnerable to over-exploitation.

Given the high levels of contaminants that accumulate in the tissues of small cetaceans, the precarious conservation status of many populations, and their slow rate of reproduction, they are not a safe and sustainable choice to provide food security (see Sections 5 and 6). However, as fish stocks decline globally due to commercial over-exploitation, small cetacean hunts are likely to further increase unless concerted international and domestic efforts are taken to protect both cetacean and fish stocks. To facilitate such efforts, we include recommendations (see Section 7) to range states and relevant international organisations, such as the International Whaling Commission (IWC), on how to stop the escalation of small cetacean hunts.


CONCLUSIONS The present report provides an overview on the number and diversity of small cetacean species killed in directed hunts and as bycatch (intentional or incidental) in several geographic regions.

The world’s largest kill of small cetaceans occurs in Peru, where up to 15,000 dolphins are killed annually for use as bait in shark fisheries. In addition to Peru, the 14 other countries where the largest number of small cetaceans are killed per year (with a minimum of 1,000 individual animals killed annually) are Brazil, Canada, Greenland, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Nigeria, South Korea, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Taiwan (PRC), and Venezuela.

In total, the authors of this report estimate that approximately 100,000 small cetaceans are killed globally each year and that hunting is a critical threat to the survival of many populations of dolphins, porpoises, and small whales. For example, the Indian Ocean humpback dolphin, only recognised as a distinct species in 2014, is now classified by the IUCN as Endangered, while the Atlantic humpback dolphin is listed as Critically Endangered; for both species hunting is identified as a principle threats. Small cetaceans are under serious anthropogenic pressure on a global scale. The cumulative impacts of habitat degradation, pollution, ocean noise, exposure to toxins, ship strikes, bycatch, and hunting are taking their toll on an increasing number of species. Although the exploitation of dolphins and smaller whales is regulated or prohibited in many countries, the laws are often inconsistent and poorly enforced, and penalties for violating the laws rarely provide a deterrent to prevent similar crimes. Furthermore, given the paucity of population data for many populations/stocks of small cetaceans, the direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts of all natural and anthropogenic impacts on the species are unknown. Without such data, the sustainability of small cetacean hunts in many areas is highly questionable.

Recent increases in human consumption of aquatic wild meat and the use of dolphin meat as bait in commercial fisheries for sharks, crabs, or catfish, are alarming. Given that many of these commercially valuable fish species are already overexploited, fisheries using cetaceans as bait exacerbate concerns about the sustainability of the takes for both small cetaceans and fish stocks and call into question the long-term survival and viability of all affected species.

The frequency by which the unintended bycatch of small cetaceans has evolved into large-scale directed hunts is also of deep concern. Even when legislation regulates or prohibits such hunts and enforcement efforts are adequate, the killing and subsequent trade in the species, their parts, and products often goes underground, making it difficult to know the full extent of the number of small cetaceans killed and the impacts of the hunts on the small cetacean populations. There are also serious animal welfare concerns associated with small cetacean hunts. Many of the hunting methods and practices currently in use cause extreme suffering for individual animals even if they are not killed; for example the use of sound to drive dolphins toward shore may create sub-lethal impacts for the animals who escape. Furthermore, very little information exists on time to death for small cetaceans killed by harpoons, spears, machetes, nets, hooks, and rifles, and it would be particularly difficult to collect such data since these hunts often occur under difficult physical and environmental conditions. As apex-predators, small cetaceans bioaccumulate heavy loads of toxic substances such as mercury, PCBs, and DDT from a multi-trophic level food chain. This raises concerns, not just about the health of the animals themselves, but also that of humans who consume them. It is also directly relevant to questions of food security.

Cetaceans are long-lived and relatively slow breeding, which make them inherently unsuitable as a sustainable food source, particularly if exploited at commercial levels, for an ever-growing human population. In addition, many populations of cetaceans are already severely depleted and human communities that are increasingly reliant on the species for food face an ongoing threat to their food security.

The other side of this problem is the reality that artisanal and local fisheries are suffering due to the activities of industrial, commercial, and often foreign fishing fleets. Governments need to recognise the cause and effect of industrial fishing (including subsidies), mining, palm oil production, and forestry on local communities and aquatic wild meat demand. This will require that local community concerns are considered in resource management decisions, including plans for distant-water industrialised fishing, that might impact their sea resources. Governments will need to facilitate the development of community based wildlife conservation to maintain wildlife habitats, protect species, and to conserve the social and economic well-being of communities.

The scale, diversity, complexity, and scope of small cetacean hunts exposed in this report should trigger discussions of the management and conservation measures (e.g., legal, economic, educational, and political) needed to protect these species and alleviate their suffering. The following recommendations are intended to achieve those objectives.

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