by Stefan Austermühle
Stefan Austermühle, German biologist and executive director of Peruvian NGO Mundo Azul (Blue World), wrote in the fall 2003 edition of the AWI Quarterly of his organization’s battle against illegal dolphins hunts for human consumption in that country’s waters. In the article that follows, Stefan relates his organization’s most recent efforts to expose and stop an ongoing practice in which dolphins are callously butchered not only for human consumption, but to serve as bait for sharks, who in turn are massacred in large numbers for their fins.
The illegal killing of 2,000–3,000 dolphins each year by Peruvian fishermen for human consumption has been the focus of a continuing conservation effort by Mundo Azul. We conducted an undercover investigation identifying illegal dolphin meat dealers, and provided Peru’s Department for Ecological Crimes with intelligence that led to the capture of many meat dealers.
But for many years there also have been rumors that fishermen were killing dolphins on the high seas to use as bait for the mako, blue and hammerhead shark fisheries—fisheries that expanded greatly in the years after a law was passed in 1996 to make the killing of dolphins and the sale of dolphin meat for human consumption illegal. By 2012 we had been hearing too much of that talk, and felt the time had come to do something. We just did not know what.
The killing of dolphins for shark bait is being carried out by a fleet of at least 500 small-scale fishing boats that operate along the entire Peruvian coast and even venture far out into international waters. Finding a needle in a haystack is easy compared to finding one of the small wooden nutshells out there in the ocean and getting close enough to document the criminal act at the precise moment when they kill a dolphin. Placing an undercover person on board a fishing boat with a crew of only four and thinking that this person could keep cameras secret during an entire one-month fishing trip is an impossible idea. In fact, this is the reason why this killing is able to go on under everybody’s noses, being an open secret in the fishing industry. There was just no way to prove it, document it, or control it.
Mundo Azul undercover investigators first tried our usual approach of talking to fishermen along the coast using hidden cameras to document the interviews. The results confirmed our worst nightmare. In only three weeks we collected nearly 20 interviews with fishermen openly admitting to killing dolphins or saying that all shark fishing boats kill 2–10 dolphins during each of their 6–8 fishing trips per boat per year. Extrapolating this out to the 500 legal longline shark fishing boats (ignoring a growing number of illegal boats as well as the driftnet fleet—which has been accused of killing dolphins and using their meat to attract sharks into the nets), and assuming only six trips per boat per year and 2–5 dolphins killed per trip produces a very rough but stunning estimate of 5,000 to 15,000 dolphins killed each year.
But then again, this was all just recorded talk. Nobody but the fishermen themselves had ever witnessed such a kill. There was simply nothing we could do with such hearsay information. We had to be bold.
The undercover staff of Mundo Azul, therefore, was instructed to make friends with boat crews and identify one that would allow a professional film crew aboard. In May 2013, the unthinkable happened, when a British film crew ventured out in stormy seas aboard a Peruvian fishing boat to make a “documentary about shark fishing” and came back with images of a dolphin kill.
When we and our NGO partner, Blue Voice, looked at the material we were stunned. At the same time our concern grew, because the only thing we had was footage of a single dolphin being killed, and we were trying to use this to prove the killing of thousands. While it was enough for me and for thousands of people concerned for the environment, it was not enough to convince the government to act. So we were back to square one.
In a desperate move, Blue Voice Executive Director Hardy Jones and I decided to try again, and approached AWI and Cetacean Society International (CSI) about joining the effort. In September 2013, a Mundo Azul undercover investigator and I left port on board a second fishing boat, again with the cover story of wanting to make a documentary on shark fishing for a foreign TV channel and promising anonymity to the fishermen so they would feel free to do whatever it was they needed to do to catch the sharks. As I stood on board watching the coast disappear, I wondered what it was we would witness during the next 24 days, navigating up to 300 miles offshore on a leaking wooden vessel propelled by a second-hand car motor, and if I would ever make it back to land at all.
A month later—after nearly falling overboard in windy seas, after filming endless nights of shark killing and being covered in fish blood from tip to toe, after repairing the failing boat motor at sea and diving in icy water to free the boat propeller from the entangled longline, we came back to land with more than we ever wished to witness: interviews with the crew admitting to systematic killing of dolphins during each of their trips and to knowledge of the practice being routine throughout the entire artisan shark-fishing fleet, radio conversations with other boats searching for dolphins to be killed, dolphin meat that had been stored from the previous trip to be used as bait, and the horrific death of one dolphin as the animal was harpooned, clubbed, hooked and cut into pieces. I went numb filming this, as I had to maintain my cool in order to come back with the one more element of proof we needed for a convincing case. But when I was sitting in our office surrounded by our staff looking at the pictures, I could not hold back the tears.
In October 2013, we published the horrifying images. The response from citizens of Peru and the globe was collective shock. More than 1 million people to date have signed a petition demanding action from the Peruvian government and the campaign has become global. The Peruvian Minister of Environment congratulated Mundo Azul for its effort and promised support, but was immediately blocked by the Peruvian Ministry of Production, whose only response so far is to try to discredit and publicly threaten Mundo Azul’s staff, while trying to prove that all our evidence does not represent reality and that dolphin killing is limited to a handful of criminals.
We are just at the beginning of a very long fight to force the government to act and enforce its own laws. I am, however, very thankful for the unbelievable support from the global community and our partner organizations, Blue Voice, CSI and AWI. Without that, it would not have been possible to get so far, and the daily killing of dolphins would still occur without the public knowing about it. We hope to continue working with our partners for as long as it takes to stop this. I just hope that the dolphin I saw butchered did not die in vain and that never again a conservationist has to stand by and witness such a thing. I want to end the killing of dolphins for shark bait because I have seen the pain and the suffering and I will never be able to forget it.