Many cultures have lines that separate which animals are considered acceptable as food and which are not. Pork, for example, is a staple meat in the United States while many Muslim-majority countries like Iran outright ban it.
Dolphin meat is a type of meat that has been banned for sale in a majority of countries, but not all — and one type of “dolphin” meat you will readily find on restaurant menus everywhere.
What Type of Dolphin Meat is Common in the United States?
There is a fish commonly referred to as “dolphin” in American restaurants that often gets confused with the marine mammal. That fish is also known as Mahi Mahi, a Polynesian word that means “strong strong”.
This Polynesian name has become more popular in restaurants and grocery stores to help reduce the confusion, but “dolphinfish” shortened to just “dolphin” was the original common name for this mild fish.
Dolphinfish tastes is a white flaky fish with a distinctive but mild flavor. It is most similar to halibut or pollock.
Is it Illegal to Eat the Other Type of Dolphin Meat in the United States?
No! Surprisingly, dolphin meat from the marine mammal (which is the only type of dolphin the rest of this article will refer to) is not illegal to consume.
However, trying to obtain wild dolphin for consumption is quite difficult (bordering on the nearly impossible) in the United States as it is illegal to purposefully hunt dolphins and to privately import dolphin and dolphin products.
One would need to obtain a permit for fishing that allows for the accidental capture of dolphins, or know someone or otherwise have a connection to someone with such a permit.
Accidentally catching dolphins in this manner, which is called bycatching, then has the added prohibition that the mammal cannot be sold due to its protected nature. But there is no prohibition on the permit-holder eating or giving away the dolphin meat to be eaten.
There is also one big caveat to all of this. Indigenous peoples, such as the Nunavut, who live in Alaska or otherwise fish in American waters are able to hunt and eat dolphins in certain sustainable numbers.
What Does Dolphin Meat Taste Like?
Dolphins are not fish, they are marine mammals and so they will have more of a red meat taste. Dolphin meat, in fact, has a very dark, blood red color that makes it appear very similar to beef organs, including beef liver which is what dolphin meat most tastes like.
Dolphin meat, like beef liver, has a slightly sweet but earthy or gamey flavor.
It readily absorbs the flavors of any item it gets cooked with and so one popular way to cook dolphin meat in those countries where it is more openly eaten is to cut it up in cubes or strips and then either fry it or simmer it in a sauce with vegetables or herbs.
In Japan, dolphin is sometimes served raw, cut thin and eaten as a type of sashimi with garnishings.
Does Dolphin Taste Like Fish?
No. While both swim in the ocean and have fins, dolphins and fish are very, very different and those differences are a big part of why they do not taste similar.
Dolphins are mammals, which means they are warm-blooded, breathe oxygen, and even are born with hair, not scales. These attributes and others are a big part of why dolphin tastes much more like beef organs than any type of fish.
Is Dolphin Meat Good to Eat?
In terms of good taste and wanting to know what does dolphin taste like in terms of quality, those who like animal organs like beef liver may appreciate the taste of dolphin, but most people would probably not enjoy dolphin meat due to its unique texture.
In terms of good nutrition, dolphin meat may have once been nutritiously healthy to eat but no longer due to high mercury levels.
Is Dolphin Meat Toxic?
If eaten routinely, yes. Dolphin meat is incredibly high in mercury — which is highly toxic to humans — and so those who routinely eat dolphin meat put themselves at risk of mercury poisoning.
Mercury poisoning builds up over time so that the more you keep eating something containing mercury, the more it gets into and remains in your system as your body is unable to flush it out faster than you are bringing it in.
Over time, excessive mercury in the body can cause a host of issues that include memory loss, irritability, tremors, and permanent neurological and kidney damage that can eventually lead to serious disabilities and even death.
The good news is that while there is no fast cure for mercury poisoning, your body can over time get rid of dangerous levels of mercury so long as you act quickly and stop consumption of high-mercury items, like dolphin and predatory fish meat, and give your body time to filter what it can out.
Why is Dolphin Meat High in Mercury?
Mercury in small amounts is not dangerous to humans and it naturally occurs in low levels around us, from the soil we walk on to the water we drink and play in. Unfortunately, human activities have exponentially increased total mercury concentrations.
A 2018 report estimated that human-caused increases of mercury, such as by the burning of fossil fuels and mineral mining, directly led to an increase in atmospheric mercury concentrations that were 450% above natural levels.
Once in the atmosphere, mercury gets caught up in cloud and rain formations, eventually making its way into oceans, lakes, and other bodies of water. Bacteria within water transform mercury into its most toxic form, methylmercury, which it remains in as that bacteria moves up the food chain.
Plankton consumes the smallest of bacterial life forms, tiny fish eat plankton, small fish eat tiny fish, mid-sized fish eat small fish, and so on up the food chain.
The bigger the fish, the more mercury it will have in its body simply due to its larger diet of eating all these other animals that likewise contain the toxic methylmercury.
Dolphin meat and the meat of other top-of-the-food-chain predatory fish like marlin and swordfish have the highest levels of mercury because of their longer lifespan and their having consumed so many other fish with their own mercury.
When you eat dolphin meat, you are thus eating mercury that has been passed on through an entire food chain.
What is the Price of Dolphin Meat?
There are very few countries that openly allow restauranteurs, butchers, fishers, and other commercial entities to sell dolphin meat. The most well-known country that does is Japan, which has chosen to follow its own traditions rather than adhere to global mandates or recommendations.
In Japan, a full dolphin will typically sell wholesale for around $600 in US currency, with per pound rates averaging between $10 and $20.
Is Japan the Only Country That Eats Dolphins?
No, Japan is just the most open country of the practice. In fact, the country that hunted and brought in the most dolphins, as well as small whales, for sale as meat or use as shark bait was once Peru.
Today, the killing of dolphins is outlawed in Peru, but there remains a massive underground market for dolphin meat. The same is true for many island and coastal nations like the Solomon Islands, Faroe Islands, Sri Lanka, Ghana, and more.
Can a Dolphin Taste?
What we currently know about tastes is that vertebrates have microscopic hairs we call taste buds or taste receptors that can perceive tastes like sweet, sour, salty, savory, and bitter. Research published in 2014 seemed to show that dolphins and similar species lost most of their taste receptors eons ago.
According to this research, dolphins can taste but they can only taste things that are salty. How well dolphins can distinguish between different salts, salty levels, and textures is still unknown.
Do Other Animals Eat Dolphins?
A few select animals will eat dolphins. The most notorious predator of dolphins is the aptly named killer whale, also known as the orca. Orcas are the only animal that will actively seek out dolphins to kill and eat as a routine part of their diet.
In addition to orcas, some large species of sharks will also eat dolphins. However, these sharks are more opportune hunters, meaning they will strike in “easy” situations such as where there are unprotected calves or smaller dolphins away from a larger pod. Thus, dolphins are not considered a major part of the diet of any one shark species.
Why are Dolphins Protected?
Dolphins are categorized as apex predators because while they are eaten by a select few other species, they are largely the animal at the top of their local food chain.
The primary reason governments and conservation organizations give for protecting dolphins is to protect the food chain and keep things in balance.
Government and conservation organizations do routinely offer the same type of protection to other apex predators in the food chain. For example, many countries eat horses and cows but not lions and wolves.
For birds, we eat chickens, ducks, and game birds but not hawks and eagles. And while we do eat large predatory fish like tuna and swordfish, commercial quotas on these types of apex fish are very strict.
But there is also another reason why dolphins and other large marine mammals are protected and that gets to a more emotional level.
During the mid-20th century, more people in places like the United States got closer looks at the lives of dolphins and whales through popular films like “Flipper” and dolphin shows such as dolphinariums, marine exhibits, and theme parks like SeaWorld.
More exposure led to more compassion for dolphins and orcas, which exhibited higher levels of intelligence and social awareness. Where that exposure occurred (United States), more of a taboo around killing and eating dolphins arose.