THE recent outrage over the killing of dolphins for sale as “fish” in the market gives us a ray of hope for our humanity. It was heartening to see that Trinidadians were unhesitating in their outcry to stop this slaughter of a graceful, intelligent and playful creature. We are by now educated that this species is not a fish, but rather a marine mammal.
Specifically, this animal in question which has been described in some of the reports as a bottlenose dolphin, but looks like it can be a pan-tropical spinner dolphin, falls into the grouping known as the cetaceans which are the modern toothed whales and dolphins and baleen whales.
From time immemorial, marine mammals have fascinated and inspired human beings. Who can forget that fateful day of October 13, 1999 when 26 short-finned pilot whales were stranded on the Manzanilla Beach? The events as they unfolded that day are best described in the words of the President of the Zoological Society of Trinidad and Tobago and the Manatee Conservation Trust, Gupte Lutchmedial, who together with the respective members were in the forefront of the rescue operations.
This is what he had to say: “The country cannot forget the compassion and heroic efforts of villagers of Manzanilla and persons from all across the country who laboured for one whole day to rescue these whales.
They touched the hearts of this country.” It is now indisputable that the efforts on that day realised the largest ever rescue of stranded whales as 14 eventually were helped back to the ocean. For their efforts, the Manatee Conservation Trust and the villagers of Manzanilla were given a national award and also received international commendations.
And then of course, we have the reverse situation happening today. A member of the whale family is being fished for food and international condemnation is replacing the international commendations.
The sentiments of most of the persons who have commented in the public eye on this situation or who have expressed their views privately are one and the same — it is a sad day indeed to see a dolphin being dragged to market and promoted as fish for Lent.
And let us not forget that in this new era of technology, the whole world is watching on. John Seyjagat of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, USA with former ties to our own Emperor Valley Zoo offered up this comment: “Regardless of laws or their inadequacies, we follow and adhere to treaties that protect marine mammals. All marine mammals are species of concern.
They are long-lived, slow reproducers, have extensive range, face threats of wild predation, exploitation and environmental disasters and require our intervention for their long term survival.”
He was quick to point out, and of this we are also quite aware, the heroic efforts of groups such as Greenpeace and the International fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in their struggle to stop Japanese whalers, sometimes placing their lives in jeopardy. And here in Trinidad, what do we do — exactly the opposite.
It is worth mentioning that IFAW, which was recently here in late 2007 to conduct a wildlife law enforcement seminar had undertook between January and March 2006, non-invasive whale research work in the Caribbean waters.
Although it is difficult to summarise the findings in one sentence, the bottom-line is that the results were quite disappointing. Vivek Menon, one of the IFAW team members conducting the wildlife law enforcement training had elicited the comment that we need to pay heed to this situation and ensure that the populations of whales and dolphins in our waters be protected at all costs.
To tell of the far-reaching consequences of this one slaughter, Kelvin Alie of the IFAW office based in the US has asked the Zoological Society of Trinidad and Tobago (ZSTT) which serves as its Trinidad representative to report on the circumstances of this death, whether accidental or deliberate so that it can then inform the relevant international agencies. What do we say, one wonders?
This brings us of course to our domestic laws, the most obvious being the Conservation of Wildlife Act and whether it does indeed offer protection to this species. The definition of animals under the Act includes mammals, reptiles and birds, without specifying that it is marine, terrestrial or otherwise. The legal pundits may all have their own interpretation, but it is no stretch of the imagination to fit in marine mammals in this definition. The Fisheries Act should also figure in the equation as its definition of fish includes marine fauna. So to say that this entire group of species of concern falls through the crack may not be the best interpretation. It is noteworthy that the Institute of Marine Affairs refers to the Wildlife Act as the legal instrument for protection, a position that the Zoological Society of Trinidad and Tobago endorses.
At a session held to discuss this matter, the Society dismissed this as a purely legal matter and felt that moral suasion is just as important in treating with this situation. Lutchmedial said that education is key to understanding the plight of marine mammals all over the world and that we are obligated under the international treaties to do our part in protecting these animals. In Trinidad, we are party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which lists all cetaceans in one or the other of its appendices; the Convention on Biological Diversity which requires us to be part of the worldwide effort to save the planet’s vast array of species; and the Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife Protocol (SPAW), which brings our responsibility closer to home as part of a regional programme. So the measures are there and we need to play our part.
It is apt to end with the sentiments echoed by the Zoological Society that rather than heap blame on the fisher folks, let us use this as an opportunity to inform them of the plight of this group of animals.