You are currently viewing A Taste For Secrecy

A Taste For Secrecy

Are dolphins eaten in Goa?

Fishing is a matter of luck. Any fisherman will admit as much.

Some days, the ocean delivers nets filled with jumbo prawns, while on others, mere handfuls of inedible blowfish. And some days, the choppy waters hand you a dolphin, already dead or still very much alive. One fisherman’s blessing is another’s curse. It depends entirely on what happens next. And what happens next remains a contentious issue in Goa – and often a closely guarded secret.

“We eat them,” admits 20-year-old fisherman Rajesh Naik matter-of-factly as his crew of a half dozen scour through a rather paltry catch of mackerel at the Candolim jetty one morning. “If they get stuck in the nets we eat them.”

Except Naik insists dolphins rarely get stuck in the small nets of their slender canoes. The trawlers who indiscriminately mine the deep seas off Goa, Kerala and Mumbai are far more likely to fatally trap the mammals. By his own logic, then, his crew rarely eat dolphin. And yet eating a single dolphin is one too many.

The dolphin is arguably the second most intelligent animal on the planet, after humans, and killing them for food is illegal.

For this article, I spent several days in jetties and fish markets along Goa’s Northern coast in search of dolphin meat. I ultimately came up empty. It would seem dolphin killing is not an enormous problem in Goa, as it may have been decades ago. However, I turned up significant evidence suggesting some dolphins do get caught in nets or are killed by other means, and that they are subsequently eaten or sold. People who readily spoke about it thinking I wanted to buy some quickly turned silent, once they suspected I was in search of information.

So here I am at a particular jetty, and it’s the third time I am inquiring about dolphin meat. The first time, a different group of local fishermen proudly declared that they too ate dolphin and could put us in touch with someone who could sell us some, though it’d be very expensive. Except no one had his number handy. We promised to return.

The fishermen seemed more guarded the second time around. Nobody wanted to discuss dolphins. Scheduled interviews were cancelled.

This time, when I ask Naik if he’s heard of anyone who sells dolphin meat from this jetty, he replies with an emphatic “No, no, no, no, no, no. Nobody. Nobody.”

“The dolphin is a fisherman’s friend – they make good business for cruises and all,” declares an older fisherman inside the boat. He is referring to the dolphin tours this same crew will offer to tourists come season time. So then what to make of last week’s offer? “They are mad guys,” explains Naik. “They were talking rubbish. They were just making a joke.”

Except getting caught with dolphin meat is no joke.

The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 states that dolphin hunting (capturing, trapping and killing) can fetch a minimum fine of Rs 10,000 and up to three years in prison – or both – for a first offence. Fines and prison terms are more than double for repeat offenders. India is one of only four countries worldwide that now designates these mammals as ‘non-human’ persons.

Wildlife activist Mario Fernandes of the NGO Chameleon believes the fishermen I spoke to – some of whom are his friends – will simply not risk selling dolphin to restaurants, markets or interested individuals. “So they’ll cut it up and distribute it among themselves only and maybe some close friends or family who share a taste for it.”

This happens only rarely, he insists. “Besides, it’s not great meat.” While he has never tried it himself, he had “seen it prepared at a friend’s place many years back.”

A Goan in his early thirties who asked not to be identified tells me his mother had tried unsuccessfully to feed him dolphin some fisherman friend had gifted her four months ago. He had always considered eating the meat bad luck and politely refused. Illegal wild boar was sometimes delivered to their house in much the same way.

Most locals recoil at the mere mention of dolphin meat. Very few will admit to eating it. Many, however, know people who still do.

One trawler-owner at the Betnim Jetty near Panjim was beaming as he repeated an old Konkani saying about how an old man on his deathbed will ask for dolphin meat. Although he had never tried it himself, he said we could definitely find some in the fish markets of Calangute and around smaller jetties such as the one in Candolim, which rarely came under the same kind of scrutiny from fisheries inspectors and NGOs.

Newspapers have documented cases of dolphin carcasses being sold to tourists in Tamil Nadu and Kerala and dolphin meat has turned up in local fish markets in neighbouring Karnataka. (Reports of some hotels in Goa buying dolphin meat for as much as Rs 500 a kilo remain unconfirmed)

Another local source directed us to one particular man selling sausages in Panjim’s main market who he said was asking Rs 700 per kg for dolphin meat. He later insisted he had lost the man’s number.

Leads to one particular restaurant in Coco Beach near Nerul in North Gao and numerous inquiries amongst various fishermen and fish markets along the Northern coast failed to turn up anything. Most were visibly uncomfortable when asked.

The Principal Chief Conservator of Goa’s Forest Department, Richard D’Souza, became angry when questioned about the issue. He demanded specific proof and declared the premise complete nonsense.

“Nobody eats dolphins. No Goan eats dolphin meat.”

The Forest Department is responsible for investigating, enforcing and prosecuting all crime involving dolphins. No one in the Forest Department or its Secretariat was willing or able to provide information on the number of inspectors, complaints or arrests made each year.

Dr Manoj Borkar, Associate Professor of Zoology and a member of Goa’s Wildlife Advisory Board, insists illegal dolphin trade and consumption are a thing of Goa’s distant past. “I still have memories of how the drains in the Vasco fish markets would be flooded with the blood of dolphins slaughtered there.
But that was more than 25 years

Forest Department efforts have paid off, he continues – be it with dolphins or any of the illegal meat Goans have been known to enjoy – Wild Boar, Cheetal, Sambar, Giant Malabar Squirrel and Indian Bull Frog – to name a few. “Even if someone today is willing to take the risk of selling (dolphin meat), there is no one who is willing to buy it.”

Policing tastes can be much more difficult, he admits. Such behaviours “don’t change overnight.” Still, “perceived and fancied” aphrodisiac properties, nutritional supplements and rheumatic cures aside, Dr Borkar remains sceptical as to how widespread dolphin consumption actually is – or ever was – for that matter.

And while the small-scale hunting of dolphins doesn’t represent any imminent threat to the mammal’s survival, scientists and wildlife activists agree even small-scale killing of dolphins is a problem.

“Since we have poor enforcement of laws in India in any case, what do you think would happen if we said ‘Oh, there are enough dolphins’ so let’s hunt them?” asks Puja Mitra, campaign manager for the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO). “Humans are not famous for moderation. How fast do you think these apparently ‘abundant’ populations would disappear?”

The FIAPO was pivotal in convincing the central government to ban proposed dolphinariums in states like Goa, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

There is currently no definitive research to either prove or disprove how any of these threats – be it from fishing nets, purse seines, trawlers, hunting or pollution – are impacting dolphin populations. Fishermen insist there are plenty of dolphins. Activists bemoan having to go out further and further to spot them.

Mitra believes building up responsible dolphin tourism in Goa means convincing local fishermen it’s in their best financial interest to stop any killing – intentional or otherwise.

“If you condone eating the dolphin simply because it has been caught in by-catch – and you only have the fishermen’s word that it was indeed caught by accident – how many ‘by-catch accidental’ dolphins will soon become the norm?” Mitra asks.