Educational Series: Incredible, Imperiled Dolphins Need Our Help

By Nick Engelfried
In 2018, shocking video footage appearing to show trapped and drowned dolphins being disposed of by a French fishing vessel sparked outrage among animal lovers. Taken during a secret filming mission off the coast of France, the rare video shows a trawling net being hauled onto a boat. According to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which captured and released the footage, two dolphins are trapped in the net–one possibly dead, the other still alive. The organization believes both animals were unceremoniously disposed of, with the live dolphin likely having its fins and tail cut off before being thrown back into the water to die.

The Sea Shepherd video provides a rare glimpse into the horrors of dolphin “bycatch,” but the cruelty it portrays is all too common. Every year, an estimated 650,000 dolphins, whales, and other air-breathing marine animals end up as incidental casualties of industrial fishing practices. Many dolphins who become entangled in nets face a terrifying death by drowning. Those who survive often have their limbs hacked off, to prevent damage to the expensive nets once they are hauled onto the fishing vessel.

Unfortunately, this sickening cruelty is just one example of how humans are pushing dolphins toward extinction. Known for their intelligence and playful natures, few animals are as beloved as the world’s more than three dozen dolphin species. However, if we do not act quickly these amazing creatures may forever cease frolicing among the waves and currents of their watery habitats.

Dolphins are widely regarded as some of the most intelligent animals on Earth, with a brain-to-body size ratio comparable to that of humans. Not only that, they have highly complex social systems and forms of communication that scientists still do not fully understand. The part of a dolphin’s brain that processes emotion is especially well developed, suggesting they experience pain, pleasure, and fear similar to our own. Yet because they are hard to observe in their natural habitat, there is still much about dolphin intelligence and social interactions that we simply do not know.

Specific social behaviors of dolphins also vary between different species, of which scientists generally recognize 41 still in existence (this number may be refined based on whether certain distinct populations actually deserve to be recognized as species in their own right). A 42nd dolphin, the baij, was declared extinct in 2007. This animal lived in China’s Yangtze River and was doomed by a combination of pollution, habitat degradation, and the construction of the massive Three-Gorges Dam.

The remaining dolphins are a highly diverse group of animals, including some most people don’t think of as belonging to the dolphin family at all. By far the largest is the orca, or killer whale–which, despite its common name, is actually a very big dolphin. One of the smallest is the Māui, a subspecies of the New Zealand dolphin that is only about six feet long. While most dolphins live in marine habitats, a few–including the extinct baij–evolved to live far inland in the large freshwater rivers of South America or East Asia. Among ocean-dwelling species, some prefer coastal areas or estuaries while others live far out to sea. Some dolphins are migratory, traveling many hundreds of miles across a vast range over the course of a year.

It seems clear animals used to covering such long distances, and with such complex social behaviors, were never meant to live in captivity. Yet, humans’ fascination with dolphins has too often led to them being imprisoned in tiny tanks, sometimes in complete isolation from others of their species. A famous example is Lolita (also known at Tokitae), one of seven orcas captured in the waters of Washington’s Puget Sound in the early 1970s. After being rounded up using nets and explosives, these terrified animals were sold to aquariums.

Today, Lolita–who was sold to Miami Seaquarium–is in her fifties and the only one of the seven left alive. Animal rights groups have joined members of the Indigenous Lummi Nation, whose traditional territory includes the waters around the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound, in calling for Lolita to be returned to her rightful habitat so she can live out the remaining decades of her natural lifespan in peace. Miami Seaquarium has so far refused to give her up, and today Lolita remains in an 80 by 60 foot tank, believed to be the smallest captive orca cage in the U.S.

It is now illegal to take dolphins and other marine mammals from their natural habitat in the United States and many other countries. However, countless individuals continue to die at the hands of humans–whether intentionally or as “bycatch.” There are even places where dolphins are still being captured alive and sold to aquariums or tourist attractions for profit. The world’s most famous annual dolphin hunt occurs in Taiji, Japan, in a village tradition made infamous by the documentary, “The Cove.” During the 2019/2020 hunting season, the Dolphin Project estimates 560 dolphins and small whales were killed in Taiji, with another 180 being taken alive and sold.

As horrifying as the Taiji hunt is, it is important to keep it in perspective. Around 10,000 dolphins die as bycatch every year off the coast of France alone. Dolphins who are trapped in industrial fishing nets usually perish far out to sea where no members of the public can witness or document their suffering. Their deaths tend to attract less notice than the highly visible slaughter in Taiji–but they are no less worthy of our attention and concern.

The world’s remaining freshwater dolphins also deserve special mention because of the unique challenges they face. Freshwater environments are routinely subject to high levels of pollution and harmful habitat alterations, making them among the most threatened ecosystems on the planet. The extinction of the baij dolphin in China is a clear example of the deadly consequences this has for wildlife.

While still clinging to survival, both the South Asian dolphin of the Ganges and Indus Rivers, and the Amazon River dolphin of South America, are endangered and at risk from further habitat disturbances. To take one example: in Brazil, the company DTA Engineering has proposed to dredge and fill the bottom of the Tocantins River, home to Amazon dolphins. This is one more assault on the future of an already-beleaguered species.

So how can we help save dolphins? Part of the answer is to be a responsible consumer. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch website contains a list of recommendations about what kinds of fish and other seafood to avoid because of their negative impacts on non-target marine animals. However, beware of some labels major seafood companies put on their products. Much of the tuna sold in the U.S. is labeled “dolphin safe”–but a class-action lawsuit against brands like Starkist, Bumble Bee, and Chicken of the Sea alleges these companies haven’t taken precautions to ensure that no dolphins are actually harmed by their operations. According to Greenpeace, brands that are safest for dolphins include Wild Planet, American Tuna, and Whole Foods’ 365 Everyday Value.

We can all do our part for dolphins by refusing to do business with companies that harm them, urging our elected officials to ban destructive fishing practices, and boycotting institutions like the Miami Seaquarium that continue to keep dolphins in captivity. For these incredibly intelligent, sensitive animals who have come to so much harm at the hands of humans, the time to act is now.

Photo credit: Michelle Bender

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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