Monday, March 22, 2010

Reasons not to eat dolphins

In my last post, I talked about how I thought The Cove was a great, entertaining documentary that deserved its Oscar win. I did not talk about the reasons why I agree with the message it was trying to give: Dolphins are friends, not food.*

People who protest the killing and consumption of dolphins are often criticized by cynics as defending dolphins "just because they're cute." While this may be one of the reasons I don't like to see dolphins slaughtered, it is not a convincing reason to stop the practice, since cuteness is subjective; if someone told me that they think ducks are adorable so I should stop eating them, I would tell them no way, ducks are delicious, so quack off. Really, ducks are pretty cute (think mallard family crossing the street, a la Make Way for Ducklings). So are baby carrots, and only that fruitarian in Notting Hill would protest the murder and consumption of carrots. It seems cuteness alone is not a deciding factor for why something shouldn't be eaten. More importantly, it will not change anyone's mind who has already decided that, whatever the animal looks like, it is still good to eat.

So why shouldn't we be eating dolphins?


Whatever your vegetarian friend tells you is unhealthy about beef, dolphin is worse. Dolphin is known to contain dangerously high levels of mercury, reaching about 20 times the recommended limit. Why so high? Mercury is naturally deposited in the ocean, but current levels are very high due to our burning of fossil fuels. In the ocean environment, mercury enters the food chain at the lowest levels and then bioaccumulates. This means that when an animal consumes something that contains mercury, the mercury in the eaten is retained by the eater. As it works its way up the food chain, higher and higher concentrations of the substance are found (bald eagles had a similar problem with DDT, if you're familiar with that story--lucky thing no one was eating bald eagles). Since dolphins are the top of the food chain and relatively long lived, they accumulate extremely high levels of mercury.

Mercury inhibits brain function, and the effects of severe mercury poisoning are heartbreaking. So it's not just that dolphin meat is unhealthy--it's that it's poisonous. There are much better foods out there to be feeding people than dolphin. This is perhaps the strongest case for crossing dolphin off the menu. It is for this reason, after all, that members of the school board in (dolphin-hunting town in The Cove) Taiji itself were able to get dolphin taken out of school lunches: parents were fearing for their children's health.


Have you ever calculated your ecological footprint? There's a really cute site here (takes just a couple minutes), or a simpler one here. I can't find the site that I used back in an undergrad course, but I remember learning two main things from it. First, if everyone lived like me we would need over 4 Earths to support everyone (and I think of myself as fairly eco-friendly), and second, the best way for me to reduce my ecological footprint was to be vegan. Think about it. How much land over how much time does it take to grow the food to feed a cow until it has grown enough to kill for meat, or to give milk so you can eat cheese? How much more food could you have made if you had just planted soybeans (or whatever veggie) instead? The answer to both questions is a lot. So much energy is lost at each trophic level that the higher up the food chain you eat, the less efficient your food source is. And remember what I was saying about dolphins being at the top of the food chain? Eating herbivores like cows is environmentally bad enough, but dolphins are carnivores that eat carnivores that eat carnivores... That's very inefficient. So basically we have the "it's like eating cows but much worse" argument again.

Not only do we not have enough Earths to support people eating high order consumers, but from what I hear, we're likely to run out of the phosphorous stores that we use to fertilize our fields before the end of the century. This really is a legitimate problem to consider.


Here's a sticky argument. Like the cute argument, it's not likely to change the minds of many people who already think that dolphins are reasonable food--after all, I'll eat pig but not dog, even though pigs are supposed to be smarter. But it is an important reason to me why we shouldn't eat dolphins; the previous arguments explain why it is impractical to eat dolphin, but not why it might be morally wrong to do so, as I believe it is. And since this reason is one attacked by many cynics and skeptics, I feel I should take the time to defend it.

There are few who would deny that killing innocent people is very wrong. It is possible that we believe it is wrong merely because of an instinct that evolution has granted us, since our genes may be better propagated if we don't kill our own, but I think there is more to it than that--it is something we can justify with morality and reason. We know how we ourselves would feel to face death. We know the pain of watching people we care about pass away before us. If we ourselves value our own lives and want to live and experience more life and can't bear to think of how our loved ones would react to news of our death, we can assume that other people feel the same way. Thus, through fairness, a do unto others as you would have them do unto you agreement, we should not kill other people.

Such reasoning, however, allows us to justify the killing of other organisms as long as we believe that they do not feel and think the same way we do. If they do no feel pain as strongly, if they do not love their lives and experiences as dearly, if they don't care as much for their loved ones--if all the things that make our own lives worth saving are lacking (or sufficiently lesser) in other creatures, then their lives are worth less and we can justify their killing if it benefits us. In a way, it boils down to relatability. If the life in question is a life we can relate to--if we can believe that it feels in a way sufficiently similar to the way we feel about our own lives--then it is wrong to kill it. Otherwise, it can be sacrificed, for example for food.

But where do we draw the line? What counts as "sufficiently similar"? And if we cannot effectively communicate between species, how do we even know how the other species feel?

It is a difficult dilemma, but everyone draws a line somewhere. Some draw the line right below people: If it's not exactly like me, then it doesn't deserve saving. Some draw the line right above fish, refusing to eat chicken or beef but enjoying tuna. Some take into account how the animal was treated in life--it's OK to kill it, as long as it lived a comfortable life. Some draw the line somewhere in the invertebrates, not eating meat but never mourning the death of a spider, or maybe a flatworm. At the very least, people draw the line after animals, since otherwise they could not justify eating vegetables. Besides, surely non-animals are not conscious in the way that we are. Right?

There is no perfect place to draw the line. Many positions can be defended. Apparently, I draw my line somewhere between dolphins and pigs. I believe that some animals, including dolphins, chimps, orangutans, and gorillas, have exhibited evidence of intelligence and depth of feeling that make their lives valuable enough to make sacrificing them wrong.

What is so special about dolphins? They exhibit complex communication. They have even been taught to communicate simple concepts with humans. They play; there's a beautiful clip in The Cove of a dolphin playing with a ring of bubbles, and, after all, dolphins are the original surfers. They even have sex for fun. They are self-aware, recognizing their own image in a mirror or in a picture. There is plentiful if anecdotal evidence that they have deliberately saved the lives of humans. And they just seem to have have a knowingness about them that I also sense when a gorilla looks into my eyes at the zoo. Maybe some of these are misunderstandings, or things I'm seeing as I want to see rather than for the truth. But I can't believe they all are. For these reasons, I believe that dolphins are intelligent enough that I do relate to them and their feelings. They are "sufficiently similar."

In The Cove, surfer Dave Rastovich tells a story about how a dolphin once saved him from a tiger shark. Maybe the dolphin was being self-serving, or it was confused, or just aggressive toward the shark. But maybe to some extent, dolphins identify with us humans, and they deem our lives worthy of saving. Having watched clips in The Cove of Mandy-Rae Cruikshank swimming with curious dolphins in the open ocean, I could certainly see this being the case. Can't we return the favor?

To lighten the mood, I leave you with these two amusing bits:

From The Onion: Dolphins Evolve Opposable Thumbs. "Holy f*ck" says mankind.

From the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie: "So long and thanks for all the fish" (starts 25 seconds in)

* It's a modified Finding Nemo quote, though it loses the alliteration of "Fish are friends, not food." Maybe "Dolphins are darlings, not dinner"?


Sam said...

I caught the modified Finding Nemo reference, I played the shark scene in my head as I read it. :) It is really hard to draw that line, I was a vegetarian for the longest time but still ate seafood/fish. I guess I thought their lives weren't valuable because they lived in the water, but I don't know what clicked inside me but about 6 months ago I decided to not eat ANY meat. Anything that at one point had living brain waves, or life or energy, nothing. I feel better about myself but I don't think I would be able to fully explain how I do things, its just how I feel I guess. Sorry for the long rant. :)

Eleni said...

Rants are OK--it's a touchy and complicated subject.

I think there are good reasons to go vegetarian or vegan. It makes life more complicated to make the adjustment, though, and there are meat dishes that I'd have trouble giving up... I guess I'm too selfish and lazy at this point in my life to make the change. But it sounds like you made a good choice and that you're happy with it.

Angel said...

Blast! I wanted to make the Hitchikers reference. But, since you beat me to that, here's another thing you should watch:

And of course, great post :)

Eleni said...

Thanks, Angel. Sounds like an interesting talk. I'll give it a look.

soft nonsense said...

I only just last week finished the first two Hitchiker's I behind the curve? I at least saw the movie way back when...

Eleni said...

I've only read the first book, and it was some time in college before I watched the movie. I think you're OK.

Vanessa said...

I just finished watching the documentary. God, I really want this to make a difference as media pressure over those narrow minded, corrupted representatives of the people of Japan! I don't mean to disrespect them as a people in any way, and I know probably every government have their corrupt representatives, plus it's clear most people there don't know about this practice, yet it's still happening and it's really disgusting to watch. It also called my attention the way they seem to appreciate whale meat so much, I think it's intriguing why someone would eat whale but not dolphin, to me it's kinda the same. China, where they see no problem eating dogs, also comes to mind.
What you wrote sounds like common sense to me, but our cultures may blind us (as you said, we all draw the line somewhere, and I face the same difficulties you mentioned to become a vegan now) so it's very important to be said. Respect for life and not taking more than you give is a matter of common-sense that we as civilized people (are we not) should keep in mind. Hopefully your words will help enlighten people who never gave the subject much thought.

Eleni said...

I think you're right about culture blinding us. If we're raised in a culture that doesn't eat dolphins, we think it's wrong. But if we were raised in a culture where it's normal, we would see protesters as insulting our culture, which isn't a good way to make people stop. Getting the people of Japan to pressure their government into making it illegal seems like the best option.

I don't know about how widespread eating whales is in Japan. If it's baleen whales that they are eating, those eat krill and so are much lower on the food chain and probably don't have the high levels of mercury that fish-eating toothed whales and dolphins have. So the baleen whales might be healthier in that sense. But I worry whether hunting those populations is sustainable, since the large baleen whales seem to become endangered so easily. We need another documentary to explain whale hunting, haha.

I'm glad you liked the movie :)

Vanessa said...

Please, not the baleen whales! They're so beautiful, gentle, sweet and harmless! Some year ago some of these species were brought to the brink of extinction, geez, can't we eat something else? There's still so many fish in the sea! The baleens seem to be the type they eat, as we see on the menu showed in the documentary. Though I understand they may fall into the healthier category, I still can't bring myself to accept killing such magnificent creatures for food. There are so many other species much more numerous that live in high numbers and seemingly more fitted for that! As you mentioned, I don't think it can even be a sustainable option.

I loved it! I recommended to my whole mailing list, thank you! :D

Eleni said...

I know, the thought of killing any whale makes me sad. So many of them are endangered, and some have become extinct because of humans. It does seem like it would be better to eat things that we can farm and thus can control their populations.

Sebastian said...

Ah, here's the answer to my previous comment -- a fleshed out response to that post on my blog a long time ago, right? :)

Do protesters actually protest because of these reasons though? The mercury thing? The carbon footprint? I don't think I've ever seen those lines of argument on Green Peace leaflets... (maybe in the past few years, but they've been campaigning against whaling for decades, before the whole carbon THING.)

The 'sufficiently similar' argument sounds most likely.

Imagine if we farmed apes/chimps for meat... hah. Wow, I wonder if anyone's ever thought about doing that before...

Eleni said...

Yeah, my responses on your blog kind of turned into mini-posts, though I was pretty busy around that time getting settled in Hawaii if I recall correctly. It was nice to revisit the issue.

I think the protesters aren't passionate about the issue because of the mercury/carbon footprint--those arguments are just more objective and easily rationalized, and thus are good ways to sway people. The mercury issue did seem to convince some of the people in Taiji.

Oh man, chimp farms. I wonder if they're tasty. Wouldn't have the mercury problem, at least.

CTeran19 said...
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