Why I Only Eat Tuna-safe Dolphin
Last night when my roommate offered to make tuna-melts for supper my response was to quip â€śNo! Eating tuna is cruel! Letâ€™s have dolphin-melts instead.â€ť And I was only half joking.
Why is there â€śdolphin-safe tunaâ€ť available in the super-market but not â€śtuna-safe dolphinâ€ť? Two conservation-related reasons are obvious: first, dolphins reproduce relatively slowly and have few natural predators and, as such, their populations could not sustain being hunted by humans for food on a large scale (incidentally, to a lesser extent the same is probably true of tuna). Second, dolphin-safe methods of fishing for tuna or other commercially fished sea creatures may result in less by-catch* of other species â€“ including but not limited to dolphins. So wanting to buy dolphin-safe tuna is entirely justified.
However, my guess is that most people that buy dolphin-safe seafood are not so much motivated by these reasons as they are by a conviction that dolphins are more intelligent, more sentient, and, they assume, are therefore more intrinsically valuable creatures than tuna. I bet dolphins rank up there with whales, elephants, and the great apes on the animal hierarchy of most Canadians. Apart from other hypocrisies that this represents in our thinking about other species (more on this later), this view of dolphins may just be out-dated and wrong.
There have been recent studies indicating that dolphin â€ślanguageâ€ť may not be nearly as complex as we once thought. It seems like their squeals and clicks are mostly used for echolocation (like bats) in dark, murky water and only for rudimentary communication. A relatively large brain is a trait often associated with intelligence; but while a dolphinâ€™s brain is large, it actually has fairly low neural tissue density and contains greater proportions of plain old fat and water. Regions of the dolphin brain that do appear to be highly developed are those used in aural cognition, again likely to do with echolocation and not necessarily language or other intelligences. So, contrary to the popular depiction of Flipper, dolphins might be similar in smarts to your average border collie, but not much more. (See chapter 8 of â€śDo Animals Think?â€ť by Clive D. L. Wynne for a more detailed review and discussion of these studies).
Granted, Canadians donâ€™t eat a lot of border collie either, but we do eat literally tonnes and tonnes of pork each year. And a pig is probably about as intelligent and sentient as a dolphin, at least as far as we can discern based on the available empirical evidence. Worse, the vast majority of our pigs are raised in utterly deplorable conditions. The fact that we have a separate term â€“ pork â€“ to differentiate the food from the animal it comes from â€“ a pig â€“ is perhaps more than just linguistic convenience: it is indicative of our attempt to dissociate the two in our mind and alleviate some of the guilt. (I realize that vegans, vegetarians, observant Seventh Day Adventists, Jews, Muslims, and anyone else that abstains from eating pork is exempt from this particular criticism, but they may well be guilty of similar prejudices regarding other species). Comparing pigs and dolphins may be like comparing apples and oranges, but this is precisely the incongruous double-standard that we are guilty of when it comes to our valuation of the various non-human creatures with whom we share the planet.
What does this all mean? For starters, we should admit to the often arbitrary rationale behind our valuation of species and be less quick to damn differing attitudes that strike us as repulsive and wrong: the Chinese eat dog, South Americans eat guinea pig, the Japanese and Icelanders eat whale, and the Dutch…ahem… eat horse. And, for an example within Canada, consider the fur industry: baby seals may be cute, but their slaughter is relatively humane and sustainable when compared to our factory-farm treatment of pigs and the environmental impact of industrial pork production (not to mention poultry or beef).
To borrow from Matthew 7:3, why do we see the dolphin (or dog, or guinea pig, or whale, or horse, or whatever) that is on our brotherâ€™s plate, but do not notice the pork that is on our own plate?
So do I actually eat dolphin? No… but I might give it a try if the opportunity arose while visiting a culture where it was part of their traditional diet. And if I do refuse to eat it, it will be on the grounds of objection to unsustainable dolphin hunting, not because dolphins are â€śjust somehow betterâ€ť.
*Footnote: By-catch is the term given to other sea life that is caught along with the target species. Most by-catch is killed or seriously injured as a result of damage from the nets, line, hooks and/or being dragged long distances. By-catch is usually discarded at sea.
Dave Bruinsma is an alumnus of the Kingâ€™s University College, having graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies (biology concentration) in 2005.