Animals

More people are eating marine animals—with deadly results

The eating of sea creatures washed up on beaches is becoming a public health hazard and a tough balancing act for governments.Thursday, May 23

By Craig Welch
People harvest the meat of beached whales in Praia do Tofo, Mozambique.

Swelling human populations and seafood declines in places like West Africa have led to an increased demand for sea animals like whales, dolphins, seals, and sea turtles: something scientists call aquatic bushmeat. Sometimes that meat gets eaten after the animals wash up dead on beaches and sometimes, the meat can sicken or even kill people.

A debate is taking shape among experts around the world: How should authorities balance such a potential public health hazard with the need for protein—especially in impoverished communities?

Crowds gather around two whales that washed up on this Mozambique beach in April. Marine mammals—both freshly dead and decayed—are known to be dangerous to eat because of the pollutants and deadly marine toxins that build up inside them.

An April incident in Mozambique makes it clear that the underlying issues are complex.

One night last month, two dead beaked whales washed up just outside the tiny village of Praia do Tofo. By midday several hundred people had gathered, many carrying machetes, eager to carve off hunks of fat and flesh to supplement their diet of coconut, fish, and starches.

But it was impossible to know if the whales were safe to eat. They had perished fairly recently, so freshness wouldn’t be a problem, but they could have died from disease or ingestion of fish loaded with toxic algae, either of which might be dangerous for people. Just last year at least seven children, including two breastfeeding infants, had died not far away in Madagascar after they or their mothers ate meat from a dead sea turtle.

So when Jessica Williams—a biologist who was on that beach near Tofo—hit the sand, she found police officers guarding the carcasses until someone came to dispose of them.

"As the day progressed, the crowd got bigger and bigger, and the police started to lose control," Williams says. "It was already hot, they were getting hungry, and heat was just getting worse."

As the crowd’s anger mounted, the police eventually dragged one carcass down the sand to split the crowd apart. But soon the police, overwhelmed, backed away and told the crowd to take whatever they wanted from one whale. It was picked clean in 15 minutes.

"That's not a particularly novel story, sadly," says Margi Prideaux, vice-chair of a new United Nations' working group studying marine mammal and reptile consumption. "People have been opportunistically harvesting this meat for generations. But because of everything we've done to the world, that meat brings a level of risk that it didn't use to."

A modern development

Coastal people from South Africa to South America, and from Indonesia to the Makah Tribe along the northwest tip of the United States, have been consuming stranded sea creatures for millennia. In Iceland, for example, a dead whale surfacing along the shore is called hvalreki, which means both "beached whale" and "unexpected good luck."

In recent decades ocean scientists have seen an uptick in human consumption of marine mammals and reptiles, generally, including those scavenged from beaches. Some scientists increasingly worry that this phenomenon can pose serious health threats.

Alaska has by far the highest rate of botulism in the United States—there are 800 times more cases per capita there—and some have been linked to eating stranded, decaying, or fermented whale and seal. One man in Nome died this year after contracting botulism from a potluck meal of beluga flipper.

Toxic algal blooms, in part as a result of climate change, are becoming more frequent and lasting longer, and large mammals can accumulate those toxins in their bodies. Marine mammals also carry disease, from brucellosis to toxoplasmosis, which is the U.S.'s leading cause of death from foodborne illnesses.

And some scientists suspect that such infections from handling and eating contaminated animals are misdiagnosed and underreported in the more remote parts of developing countries, especially where whale carcasses are dealt with without protective gloves or clothing.

One scientist who handled hundreds of small whales and dolphins during necropsies in Peru suffered "seizures with loss of consciousness, severe myalgias and backaches, undulating fever, profuse night sweats...persistent chronic fatigue, anorexia, and dramatic weight loss"—all consistent with brucellosis.

Sea turtle meat in particular can be quite dangerous, especially hawksbills, which feed on sponges toxic to humans. Three people died in Micronesia and 20 more were sickened after eating hawksbill meat in 2010. Four more sea turtle consumers died in the Philippines in 2013. In some parts of South Africa hawksbills are even called "coffin turtles."

In communities where poverty and hunger are high, eating stranded marine animals—or those accidentally snared by fishing gear—has even led to new fishing operations that target those creatures.

Dolphins are now regularly hunted in Ghana, Madagascar, and Peru. "The availability of dolphin flesh originally derived from accidental bycatch has led to a newly acquired taste for this non-traditional source of protein," scientists wrote about Sri Lanka in 2012.

Some of that meat, whether stranded or caught intentionally, carries other risks from modern life. Pollutants—pesticides, heavy metals, and polychlorinated biphenals (PCBs)— build up inside them. Cetaceans in the West Indies were found to carry far more toxic mercury than other seafoods. Research in the Faroe Islands have linked heart problems, brain development delays, and other health issues in children to whale meat consumed by their mothers.

The new bushmeat

Bushmeat traditionally has been thought of as a handful of wild animals from tropical forests in southern latitudes, such as monkeys, bats, rats, and other wild game. But researchers recently started referring to an entire class of non-fish seafood that includes cetaceans, other marine mammals and marine reptiles, as aquatic bushmeat.

Until two or three years ago, wildlife managers gave the risks of eating aquatic bushmeat little thought. But now concerns are serious enough that Prideaux's committee with the U.N. Convention on Migratory Species is trying to come up with global recommendations for how to help countries respond.

Challenges are great. There are no statistics about how often aquatic bushmeat is consumed, let alone how frequently it might make people ill. The governments most in need of guidelines often are beleaguered, with few resources.

"We're talking about a working group that is trying to provide guidance for the entire world, and that's just not as targeted as it needs to be," Prideaux says. "In places like the U.S. or Australia, if there's even the tiniest threat to grocery store meat we'll have that meat run recalled. In some of these communities the dependence is so strong that the risk of illness could be as high as 1 in 100.

"We need a huge amount of government awareness to be raised so that agencies are better primed and can take that generic guidance and make it regionally or nationally specific," she adds.

Not everyone is certain there are great risks in eating aquatic bushmeat. Phil Clapham, cetacean assessment team leader at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, said most of the time fresh filter-feeding whales are probably not harmful to consume.

"It is the basis for the recent whaling industry, and is also extensively used by native people such as those in Alaska," he said.

And while toothed whales carry more contaminants because they eat bigger prey that themselves absorb more toxins to pass up the food chain, it's not clear just how much that might affect human health—even when taken dead off a beach.

Martin Robards, a scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society's Arctic program, said that while botulism cases are higher in the Arctic than elsewhere, they still aren't exactly common.

But in some cases, so many people share an animal that a single contaminated source can harm dozens of families.

"The issues can be serious and life-threatening," Prideaux says. "But we're really just beginning to understand them."