Dolphin kills may provoke US ban

Colombo is at pains to clear itself of the UNEP charge that it is one of the world's five major dolphin catchers.

By Ravi Sharma
Published: Monday 15 March 1993

-- A SRI LANKAN research team has dismissed as "biased" and "rushed" a UN study that claims the country is among the world's top five dolphin- catchers. The release of the team's report this month is keenly awaited by Colombo, which fears that if Sri Lanka continu6s to be identified with a high kill figure, the US may attempt to ban its fish exports.

Its worries have been heightened by proposed US legislation that would authorise the commerce secretary to place US observers on any country's ocean-going vessels if it was felt they were involved in regular and significant "marine mammal encirclement" (when creatures such as dolphins become trapped in fishing nets).

But Pauline Dayaratne, director of the marine biological resources division in, Sri Lanka's National Aquatic Resources Agency, criticised the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report as being based on extrapolations from "too small a sample". UNEP estimates the country's annual dolphin catch at 49,863, or 10 per cent of the global kill. But Dayaratne told Down To Earth her agency's year-long study, in collaboration with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's Bay of Bengal Programme, puts the figure at just 6,000.

"Dolphin fishing is quite marginal in Sri Lanka," says Dayaratne. "Sri Lankan fishermen traditionally do not hunt dolphins as it is not socially acceptable, and dolphins are not favoured by local consumers." Nevertheless, dolphin meat is gradually finding a market in Sri Lanka, though usually disguised as dugong, "which, ironically, is almost extinct in the region".

In addition, adds Dayaratne, some dolphins are caught by trawler crews for sale as bait.

Dayaratne says dolphins are caught mainly by "multi-day'boats" and not by the small, traditional fishing vessels as has been extrapolated in the 1990 UNEP study. Her study, indicates only 1,800 dolphins were harpooned by the fishermen, while the UNEP researchers, led by Stephen Leatherwood, who heads the World Conservation Union's Ceta6ean Specialist Group, put the figure at 5,000.
Extinction possible The London-based campaign group, the environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), used Leatherwood's data to set the annual dolphin catch at 60,000. Warned EIA chairman Allan Thornton: "Unless urgent action is taken immediately to roll back the intense pressures threatening the survival of the Earth's most delightful species, many dolphin populations are likely to become extinct by 2000."

The EIA document, which was discussed by the International Whaling Commission, claimed to contain the most up-to-date information in 15 years. Its acceptance as definitive by Sri Lankan official resulted in widespread concern about the need to clear Sri Lanka's name by controlling the dolphin trade, but when the police started taking action, the Sri Lankan fisheries minister had to concede there was no law in the country against the trade.

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