The ethics of eating an endangered species, an analysis of sea turtles in PNG

My good friend Mr David ‘Sharkman’ Shiffman recently had a turtle burger somewhere in the Cayman Islands of Central America and blogged about it and all of a sudden somebody’s food became the debate of the day with people arguing their cases on many different grounds, from sustainability, to the possibility of turtle meat becoming a new menu of choice and even animal rights. While I try to keep an open mind when reading the comments other readers of that blog had, I could not help going past the point where a reader made a comment about “the ethics of eating an endangered species” and specifically chose PNG to elaborate on her comment by stating “For example, in communities in PNG the following needs to be taken into account:
  1. Often the capture and slaughter methods are extremely cruel
  2. Reduction in calorific expenditure – if you go fishing and come across a turtle you might only spend an hour fishing
  3. Differing perceptions of what a turtle is and why it is important
  4. Who can and does catch turtles (sometimes only certain males in certain families)
  5. Variety in diet….”

I do not want to bore you by stating my arguments for each of the 5 points the reader raised, however, I will comment on the methods and let you decide whether it is cruel or not. 15 of Papua New Guinea’s 20 provinces are either surrounded by the sea or have the sea included in their Provinical boundaries. This means about 70% of PNGs population is made up of people who live off the sea. Like many developing countries and other small island nations in the world today, our culture and tradition are still highly respected today. Having said that, the sea turtle like many other marine/aquatic animals is highly respected in the PNG society. For example, the people of the Sepik respect crocodiles so much they carve images of the animal into their canoes and bodies as a mark of respect to the animal, the people of Kontu in the West New Britain Province of PNG believe the sharks are a reincarnation of thier ancestors and they call the sharks to them and slaughter them instead of going out shark fishing and finally there are the people of Manus who like many others believe there is a special connection with their past in sea turtles. Because of the special respect and association these people have with these animals, the slaughtering of these animals is only limited to special occassions and when the need arises, the hunters do their best to use the most effective means available to minimise suffering to the animals.

Sea turtles in PNG are hunted in two main ways, first is through the use of a harpoon where the hunter uses a spear with a hooked tip. The hunter aims for the shell or part of the animal that will not cause it much pain and spears it. Upon impact, the tip breaks off and and the spear falls away. The hooked tip is connected to a buoy on the surface by a line so people on the surface can follow the turtle around and then pull it up to the surface. If the hunters are not satisfied, the turtle is set free. The second way is to dive into the water with the turtle and grab it by its front flippers and then press down on the lower part of the back shell so the turtle swims to the surface instead of diving down.

Now it can be argued that the slaughtering method is cruel but quite frankly, sea turtles are very hard to kill, they can not be srtangled and many societies forbid bleeding the animal. So, the best way is to throw it into a fire, turtles die easily when the temperature rises above a certain limit. When a turtle is slaughtered, every single part of it is put to use and only the contents of the alimentary canal are thrown away.

These methods may be very primitive but the hunters do have the choice of deciding whether to keep the animal or release it and if they release it, the animal is healthy enough to recover and survive. In both cases the animal is not hurt much and has a greater chance of surviving compared to modern fishing methods that require large drift nets covering a large expanse of the sea causing many turtles to become entangled in them. Most of these animals die by drownung and the few that make it through eventually die of exhaustion. The dead animals are often classified as bycatch and thrown overboard, a total waste of a beautiful animal, unlike in PNG where every single part of a caught turtle is put to use with the only waste being the contents of the digestive tract.

Finally, the people of PNG do to some exetent practice a little sustainability in their practice of turtle hunting. Although, this may not be word for word a direct text-book copy of what western societiey defines as being humane and sustainable to these animals, that was, is and will always be simply how things are done in PNG.

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