It is both intriguing and bewildering watching the fallout and resulting hype over the documentary The Cove which portrays animal activists, led by Flipper trainer Ric O’Barry, outing the not-so “secret” practice of dolphin fishing in Japan.
At the heart of this political campaign is the emotional bond that we have been conditioned to believe exists between dolphin and human; that somehow dolphins are more human than other animals and thus deserving of something more than what we give to other animals. On the other side is a tradition spanning thousands of years across many cultures all around the world; that dolphins are a genuine food source.
According to the campaign material on various websites in support of or directly related to the movie, the purpose of the film is to alert people to the “heinous” activity and gain support in demanding that the Japanese government ban the practice. They raise only the following few points:
- 20,000 dolphins and porpoises are killed each year in Japan;
- the way in which the dolphins are killed is "brutal";
- Japanese consumers are being sold dolphin meat;
- the meat can contain high levels of mercury; and
- the meat is often labelled as whale meat.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the aim is to prevent dolphins and porpoises from being killed (full stop) and that the other issues (the horror of death; that Japanese people are barbaric for eating dolphin meat; health and safety of consumers is at risk due to toxins; and illegal trading practices include mislabelling of seafood) are merely designed to attract a sympathetic audience from as far and wide as possible.
Subsequently, I’m not going to be drawn on debating some of these points in detail as they are simply red herrings, which I will explain shortly. My intention herein is to play Devil’s advocate by taking a philosophical look at each of the other points raised by the filmmakers to determine whether the practice of dolphin fishing is indeed as bad as they suggest.
Ultimately the question open for debate is whether dolphin meat should be available for consumption. Individual moral values aside, there are only three points to logically consider when determining whether we should eat a particular food (be it beast or plant):
- Is the food fit for human consumption? It must be nutritious, palatable and have no ill side effects.
- Will consumption hasten the extinction of that species or be detrimental to the population in a particular area?
- Are the practices of bringing the food to the table the best available? Are they environmentally sound, humane, hygienic, efficient, competitive and honest?
Let’s look at these in detail for the example of dolphins and porpoises in light of the movie, The Cove. First, dolphins, whales and other cetaceans have been an integral part of the diet of numerous cultures for many thousands of years. Technically it is a nutritious and pleasant food to consume if you don't draw any conscious familiarity to Flipper. Those that are squeamish about the concept are likely to have similar issues with eating Bambi or Thumper.
Concerns about toxins, such as cadmium or mercury, are justified but are equally applicable to other seafood caught from the same waters as the dolphins. All pollution eventually reaches the oceans, so seafood has experienced increased levels of toxicity in recent decades and the developing nations of Asia are the leading culprits.
Similarly, we have examples in Australia where a cheap fish is substituted for an expensive one, such as barramundi. Labelling and toxicity are matters for the relevant agencies to address and most consumers are right to expect their food to be labelled correctly and to know that it meets health guidelines, no matter whether it was chicken or whale.
These are not issues unique to Japan or the dolphin trade and both arguments are simply red herrings. Thus, there is no gastronomic or biological reason for banning dolphin as a food item. Let’s move on.
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