Baiting Sharks: How Shark Fishing Devastates Dolphin Populations

Emily Lively

Globally, humans slaughter approximately one hundred thousand dolphins annually. Humans kill dolphins for a variety of reasons, including cultural purposes, human consumption, and to eliminate competition for fish. However, a far lesser-known use of dolphin meat accounts for the largest killing of dolphins worldwide.

Currently, seventeen countries slaughter dolphins for use as shark bait. In the 1990s, demand for shark fins drastically increased. Market value for shark fins exceeded that of dolphin meat. Rather than sell their dolphin meat for human consumption, fisheries opted to use it to obtain the more lucrative shark fins.

Fishermen in Peru alone kill approximately 15,000 to 20,000 dolphins each year for use as shark bait. Shark fishermen track pods of dolphins until they are within harpoon range. Once harpooned, the fishermen haul the dolphins onto their boat. Many times the dolphins are skinned alive. Other times, the fishermen beat them to death with clubs before chopping them into pieces.

In 2019, a fleet of four Taiwanese ships killed roughly 70 dolphins during a four-month shark fishing trip. This is from just four of an estimated 1,000 shark fishing vessels in Taiwan, providing another example of the substantial annual depletion rate of dolphin populations by shark fisheries.

Shark fisheries kill an estimated 63 to 273 million sharks each year. Sharks are primarily killed for their fins alone, which are a main ingredient in the popular Asian dish shark-fin soup. Shark finning is a gruesome practice. Fishermen cut off the shark’s fins while it’s still alive. Quote often, fishermen then toss the shark back into the ocean finless. Ultimately, the shark either bleed to death or suffocate from their inability to swim without their fins. “It’s like cutting off your limbs and leaving you to bleed to death,” Rebecca Regnery of Humane Society International described.

Shark-fin soup is considered a status symbol in many Asian countries. The soup itself, however, has no nutritional value. Shark fins actually contain high concentrations of methylmercury, which poses risks to human health. Methylmercury is a neurotoxin that can cause nervous system damage. Methylmercury can also impair neurological development in children.

The killing of dolphins and sharks by shark fisheries is reaching unsustainable levels. Both species are critical to maintaining a healthy ocean and, by extension, the health of the planet as a whole. Dolphins and sharks are apex predators. As their populations decline, fish populations surge. Rising fish populations send ripples down the food chain and lead to the depletion of phytoplankton. Phytoplankton are vital to maintaining the oxygen that humans breathe. Phytoplankton absorb four times the amount of carbon dioxide as the Amazon Rainforest. Additionally, phytoplankton generate fifty percent of the Earth’s oxygen. With the threat of climate change constantly looming, conserving healthy dolphin and shark populations is more important than ever.

Since dolphins are highly migratory species, the conservation of dolphin populations is highly dependent upon international law. Currently, there are no international laws centered around the protection of dolphin species. The International Whaling Commission (“IWC”) is the primary international organization tasked with protecting cetaceans (i.e. whales, dolphins, and porpoises). The IWC, however, only issues binding resolutions regarding the ten “great whale species.” The IWC’s Sub-Committee on Small Cetaceans urged the IWC to amend the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (“ICRW”) to include small cetaceans (i.e. dolphins and porpoises) in 1976. Intense pressure from pro-whaling nations, however, kept small cetacean legislation from receiving the required three-fourths majority. As such, dolphins remain unprotected under international law.

Given the important role dolphins play in maintaining healthy ocean ecosystems, the implementation of international legal protections for dolphin species is critical. Relying on countries to enact laws at the national level is not enough. For example, Peru banned dolphin hunts in 1996. Additionally, Peru outlawed dolphin harpoons in 2018. Lack of enforcement, however, allows an upward of 20,000 dolphins to be slaughtered each year. “Yes it is prohibited . . . . Of course, everybody knows about it. But to catch us, the authorities need to come here, search for us, and find use with the dolphins. The likelihood for this to happen is zero.” International laws would put greater pressure on countries to beef up their enforcement procedures, such as monitoring incoming catch at ports.

Shark fisheries kill tens of thousands of dolphins annually, resulting in completely unsustainable population declines. Enactment of legal protections is needed to ensure dolphins roam the oceans for decades to come. For, “[a] world without dolphins . . . isn’t much of a world at all.”

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