While cetacean-based food products are highly popular among the Vincentian public, distinct demographic and geographic patterns define this popularity, indicating that risks presented by the contaminants in these food products are unevenly distributed within the population.
This gender-based preference for consumption, coupled with the fact that 39% of households in SVG are headed by women (Ministry of Finance 2019) and that women, regardless of whether they are considered the heads of their households, are the primary planners of household meals (Young 1993), indicates that dietary guidelines, if established, may be effective in protecting the population from pollution-associated negative health effects.
The fact that age is not a significant demographic variable in patterns of cetacean-based food product consumption challenges the common conception that whaling—and, by extension, the consumption of food products derived from whaling—is a declining way of life globally and specifically in the Caribbean. A 2013 study found that 64% and 55% of respondents (n = 211, ages 16–25, mean 18.0 years) consumed meat and blubber, respectively, from small cetaceans (Fielding 2013). Our findings indicate that cetacean-based food products remain popular with the Vincentian youth and that their popularity neither increases nor decreases significantly with the age of the consumer.
Our analysis of consumption data organized by occupational categories (as a proxy for socioeconomic class) suggests findings that differ from those of previous studies. For example, Adams (1980, 25) found that small cetacean meat was occasionally consumed by what he termed “low income informants,” and hardly at all by those of higher socioeconomic standing. By contrast, we found no significant preference for cetacean-based food products among those of lower socioeconomic classes (occupational categories 6–9), nor by respondents who reported being unemployed at the time of the survey. While our findings did show some significance in predicting consumption among respondents representing occupational categories 4 and 8 (Clerical workers and Plant and machine operators), the prediction in both of these cases was toward lower than average rates of consumption. These socioeconomic findings may indicate either that ours is a more thorough assessment of dietary patterns than previous studies, likely owing to our larger sample size and partnership with local collaborators, or that dietary patterns have changed during the intervening decades.
The two regions in which Vincentian whaling operations are based—Barrouallie and Bequia—are home to the highest rates of consumption of the products derived from those operations. Each of these regions also represent a nadir of consumption of the “other” cetacean-based food product (small cetacean products in Bequia and humpback whale products in Barrouallie). This spatial pattern could be understood as simply a matter of availability: local demand is sufficiently high and transportation logistics are complicated or expensive to the point that it often makes sense for vendors to distribute food products close to their point of origin. Indeed, with a few exceptions, our results suggest that consumption rates strongly correlate with proximity to the whaling centers of Barrouallie and Bequia. A general association of small cetacean-based food products with the main island of St. Vincent and humpback whale-based food products with the Grenadines confirms this trend. Within the Grenadines, only the tiny island of Mayreau (pop. 270, n = 28) hosts a population whose demand for small cetacean-based food products matches that of any region on the main island. No region on St. Vincent exceeds any Grenadine island in terms of humpback whale meat, blubber, or oil consumption but the region in which these products are most popular is the South—the closest region, geographically, to the Grenadines. Simple availability does not fully account for the low rate of small cetacean product consumption in Bequia and the similarly low rate for humpback whale products in Barrouallie. Rather, the pattern explained by proximity to whaling centers is likely punctuated by specific regional pride and loyalty to local products within each of the whaling centers.
Frequency and amount of consumption
The frequency and amount of consumption are major considerations that help fine-tune our understanding of Hg exposure beyond what a binary analysis of consumption versus abstention allows. One who consumes cetacean-based food products, but does so very infrequently or in small amounts, is not as exposed to Hg as one who consumes frequently or who consumes very large portions.
In other whaling communities where health authorities have advised the public on reducing their exposure to environmental contaminants, dietary recommendations typically have been designed to limit the frequency of consumption. For example, the first dietary recommendations in the Faroe Islands (a North Atlantic whaling community), issued in 1977, suggested the general population limit its consumption of small cetacean meat and blubber to no more than one meal per week. Over the following decades, as concentrations of Hg and other contaminants continued to increase, Faroese health authorities issued increasingly strict dietary guidelines, culminating in the controversial 2008 recommendation that “the pilot whale… no longer [be] used for human consumption” (Weihe and Joensen 2012, 18594). During the 31 years that elapsed between the first dietary advice and the 2008 recommendation to discontinue consumption, health authorities were able to inculcate the Faroese public to the nature of the risk and the associated need for mitigation (Fielding 2018). Owing to the higher levels of Hg found in cetaceans taken in SVG, relative to those in the Faroe Islands, the Vincentian population is unlikely to have the luxury of such a long process of acclimatization.
Among nutrition researchers, portion size is a difficult datum to gather accurately (Cypel et al. 1997). With regard to small cetacean meat and blubber, specifically, our analysis might have been aided by the fact that these food products are typically sold in single-serving bundles. A comparison of small cetacean meat bundles, however, found that they varied by more than 100 g, ranging from 113 g to 227 g, even though prices were equal among portions of all sizes (Fielding 2010). This makes our respondents’ statements on portion size such as “five dollars’ worth every week,” or “a bundle a day,” less useful in terms of actual portion size analysis. Most of our respondents provided detailed information on the frequency with which they consumed cetacean-based food products but could not specify their typical portion size in a meaningful way. In the absence of reliable data on portion sizes, we will assume a bundle of dried meat weighing 170g—the midpoint of the range presented by Fielding (2010)—as an estimate for average portion size until future research provides more specific data.
The amounts that can be safely consumed, based upon the PTWI (JECFA 2006), can be instructive in terms of dietary advice and public health advocacy. Given that the species identity of the cetacean being consumed is only reliably known for products resulting from the operation targeting humpback whales in Bequia (Fielding 2014), we shall address here only two measures given in Table 5: the mean amount that can be consumed based upon the mean MeHg percentage from the literature for all small cetacean species combined and the same value for all species combined, excluding killer whales. In the current system, with all species combined, a 60 kg adult can consume slightly less than a third (31%) of an average-weight bundle (170 g) of small cetacean meat per week and remain within the guidelines provided by the FAO/WHO. If killer whales were removed from the analysis, that typical adult could consume slightly more than a third (37%) of an average bundle per week.
Large intra- and interspecies variability exists in the amount of tissue that could be consumed without exceeding the PTWI. This variability is likely a result of the large variability in THg concentrations and the percent present as MeHg, which is further confounded by the fact McCormack et al. (2020) did not speciate for MeHg and we, therefore, had to rely on values taken from the literature. As a result, we cannot make specific recommendations as to the safest species to consume, particularly for muscle, but suggest that the most conservative interpretation would be to focus upon the minimum amount of tissue calculated based upon the highest percentage MeHg (the low end of the range presented in each row of the right-most column in Table 5). While the greatest amount of blubber could be consumed without exceeding the PTWI, consumers should still be cautious because this estimation is only based on MeHg and does not include lipophilic organic contaminants such as PCBs and pesticides, which are often found in cetacean blubber (Dam and Bloch 2000). Finally, it is also important to consider that consumers may eat different tissues, or tissues from various species, within a week and these values are based on the consumption of a single tissue.
Reasons for not consuming
An analysis of the reasons for not consuming cetacean-based food products illuminates the existence of certain barriers that, if removed, would likely result in greater rates of consumption throughout the study area. Of particular interest is the spatiality of rejection responses due to lack of availability. The lowest frequency of availability-related rejections of each food product is, predictably, in the location of its production: Barrouallie for small cetaceans and Bequia for humpback whales. One can infer the reach of the formal and informal distribution routes through the maps presented in Fig. 2 and Fig. 4: food products derived from small cetaceans are conveyed well to all regions of St. Vincent except the north windward coast, while its distribution in the Grenadines appears not to meet demand. Similarly, humpback whale products are well-distributed in Bequia but less so in the Southern Grenadines. Humpback whale product distribution in St. Vincent appears to be patchy—most likely a result of the informal nature of the distribution networks there.
Lack of availability limits the consumption of humpback whale products, especially in regions of St. Vincent, and the same is a major reason for the lack of small cetacean product consumption in the Grenadines, as well as in the North Windward region of St. Vincent. Going by road, North Windward is the region of the island that is the most difficult and time-consuming to reach from Barrouallie; it seems that the travel is not worth the reward to many of the island’s small cetacean product vendors. The necessity of a long and expensive ferry trip (> 6 hours to cover the 65 km from St. Vincent to Union Island, at EC$100 [US$37] for a round-trip fare, based upon the available ferry options in 2018) certainly contributes to the reduced availability of small cetacean products in the Grenadines as well.
Some respondents perceive a “seasonality” regarding cetacean-based food product availability. While the Bequia whaling operation does, in fact, rely upon the seasonal migrations of humpback whales between the Eastern Caribbean and North Atlantic (Martin et al. 1984; Stevick et al. 1999, 2018), the Barrouallie-based small cetacean operation shows no clear seasonal variation except for the short-term breaks in whaling activity during certain holidays and periods of hazardous weather (Adams 1973; Fielding 2018). The perceived seasonality in whaling among consumers may, rather, indicate seasonal variation to the distribution networks that bring cetacean-based food products throughout the country.
Among consumers of small cetacean products, 62.8% do not consume humpback whale products, while only 31.9% of consumers of humpback whale products do not consume products from small cetaceans. This is likely an indication not only of the ubiquity of products derived from small cetaceans but also of their tendency to replace humpback whale meat when the latter is unavailable. At the time of our study, the Bequia operation had successfully landed only one humpback whale during the previous three years (2015, 2016, and 2017). Rejections for lack of availability indicate that unmet demand for cetacean-based food products likely exists in some parts of SVG. Specifically, if more whaling were to occur, and if distribution networks were expanded to reach currently underserved areas, the products would likely find ready consumers. The Bequia humpback whale operation is limited to a maximum of four whales per year by the IWC. The Barrouallie small cetacean operation, however, is not limited by Vincentian domestic law or by any international treaty to which SVG is party (Fielding 2018). In theory, the operation acts as an open-access resource institution and—if cetacean populations can sustain the increased pressure—could potentially expand to fulfill demand for cetacean-based food products in places where availability is currently limited. This underscores the pressing need for future research to understand the size and dynamics of local cetacean populations. It also illustrates the need for future policy action, specifically the establishment of whaling quotas or another system of limited entry to regulate the take of small cetaceans by Vincentian whalers.
Rejection of cetacean-based food products for religious reasons is largely associated with two specific religious groups: adherents to the Rastafarian and Seventh-Day Adventist faiths. Both traditions proscribe the consumption of sea creatures lacking “fins and scales” in keeping with their interpretation of the Levitical dietary laws given in the Bible. In the 2012 census, 11.6% of Vincentians self-identified as Seventh-Day Adventists, while 1.1% identified themselves as Rastafarians. Rejections by Adventists dominate the religious rejection of cetacean-based food products. Of all the rejections for religious reasons, 71.4% of small cetacean product rejections and 73.7% of humpback whale product rejections are by respondents who cited their Adventist faith; 11.1% and 7.9% are from those who cited their Rastafarian faith, and 17.5% and 18.4% are for unspecified religious adherence.
We found more religious rejections of small cetacean products than of humpback whale products along with the occurrence—absent in the small cetacean product rejections—of ethics and legality as a category of reasons not to consume humpback whale meat. The Bequia-based whaling operation has attracted more international scrutiny than the small cetacean operation in Barrouallie. This is, in part, due to the fact that humpback whales are internationally protected and are strictly managed by the IWC. Under current IWC rules, every six years the government of SVG must submit a “need statement” to the IWC, laying out the cultural and nutritional benefit of maintaining its aboriginal subsistence whaling quota (IWC 2012, 2015). The operation targeting small cetaceans falls only under the jurisdiction of the Government of SVG because small cetaceans in the Caribbean region are not managed internationally (Gillespie 2001; Reeves 2005). The differential management of the two whaling operations may give Vincentian consumers the impression that Bequia’s operation targeting humpback whales is more ethically and legally ambiguous than the Barrouallie operation, since the former requires international oversight and the latter does not.
Although rejection for “menstruation” is mentioned only infrequently in our surveys (3.1% and 2.1% for small cetacean and humpback whale products, respectively), it warrants discussion here for its unusual nature. Specifically, a belief exists among some members of the Vincentian public that female cetaceans menstruate and that this constitutes a valid reason to eschew their consumption. To be clear, cetaceans do not menstruate, although certain odontocetes, including killer whales and short-finned pilot whales, do experience a reduction and eventual loss of fertility with age (Marsh and Kasuya 1984, 1986)—a phenomenon that some scholars have compared to menopause in humans (McAuliffe and Whitehead 2005). While the origins of this unfounded belief remain unknown, it calls to mind the general menstrual taboos long described by anthropologists (e.g. Kamsler 1938; Stephens 1961; Young and Bacdayan 1965; Montgomery 1974) and in particular, the interactions between the menstrual taboo and hunting traditions (Kitahara 1982). The important difference in the cases analyzed by Kitahara and the Vincentian case is that the former considers only human menstruation as a taboo during hunting, while the latter projects this characteristic upon the animal.
Previous research has found that cetacean-based food products are largely viewed as healthy in SVG. A 2013 study found that 68% of survey respondents (n = 211) believed small cetacean meat to be healthy (Fielding 2013). A further 19% of respondents in that study answered that they did not know whether it was healthy or not. Only 8% responded that small cetacean meat was not healthy. In our surveys, a minority of respondents—6.8% and 4.7%—cite health as their reason for not consuming small cetacean meat and humpback whale meat, respectively. Even when all of the marginally health-related categories of reasons for rejection (diet, fish, health, mammal, and sanitation) are taken together, only 13.4% and 10.5% of respondents reject small cetacean products and humpback whale products, respectively, for health. Considering the findings of McCormack et al. (2020), it is clear that this public perception is misaligned with the reality of environmental contamination.