'Managing' marine mammals to death

By Mark Brazil | Mar 17, 1999

Part two of two parts

Ironically, while Japan is busy hunting Steller’s sea lions, elsewhere in the North Pacific, their plight is recognized and addressed by the protection offered by the U.S. Endangered Species Act, in which they are classified as endangered in the western portion of Alaska, and as threatened in the eastern portion. They are also recognized by the IUCN as a vulnerable species, and are protected in coastal reserves and sanctuaries in both Russia and the United States.

Interestingly, here in Japan, animals and plants living in the sea are classified under the Japanese Fisheries Agency, not under the Environment Agency. Thus, protection of sea lions comes under the jurisdiction of those most active in their destruction!

Since 1993, hunts have been limited to 116 animals per year, but how and why that number was chosen is not clear, nor is its ecological validity. The extremely skewed sex ratio in the population is not taken into account by this limit, nor is the distribution of the population or the distribution of the hunting. Furthermore, the hunt is not monitored.

Is that figure controlled for the whole of Hokkaido, or just in certain areas? This is a crucial point: Pregnant females tend to winter in particular areas, so hunting sea lions there will have a much more significant impact on the population than hunting elsewhere would.

Clearly there is an urgent need to improve both the legal and practical means of protecting seals in Japanese waters. Although researchers have proposed a conservation action plan, it has yet to be implemented. With the population in steep decline, we can only hope that the Fisheries Agency will choose to do something for the Steller’s sea lion before it is too late.

Japan’s jurisdiction in the range of the species is relatively small, though nevertheless significant. Japan’s management problems, however, are not as great as those being experienced in the U.S.

Administering enormous areas of the Gulf of Alaska, the Bering Sea and the Aleutian Islands, where groundfish fisheries are among the largest and most valuable in the world, and where these very fisheries coincide with the distribution of the Steller’s sea lion, the U.S. has a major issue to deal with. In some areas sea lion populations have declined by 80 to 90 percent since the 1950s, and the most recent surveys indicate that their numbers are continuing to plunge throughout western Alaska.

Historically, the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea have supported some of the largest and most diverse concentrations of marine mammals and seabirds in the world, but the populations of sea lions, seals and seabirds have all declined dramatically since the 1960s, apparently in relation to reduced food availability.

Over the same time frame there has been a massive increase in the commercial fishing of groundfish in the region, which rocketed from 27,000 tons to 2.1 million tons each year. On the one hand the authorities are honor-bound to protect endangered wildlife, and yet they also have the remit of maintaining sustainable, economically viable fisheries.

Yet research in 1992-93 by staff at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory showed that if the current population trend is allowed to continue, there is a very high probability that within 100 years there will be no sea lions left in Alaska westward of Prince William Sound.

In response, conservation measures have been introduced that prohibit shooting at or near sea lions (limiting the number of sea lions that can be killed incidentally while fishing), and extending no-entry zones around sea lion rookeries.

However, the direct killing of sea lions is not the only thing that impacts on their numbers. They are also greatly affected by the reduction or removal of their prey from areas within fishing range of their rookeries. Physically they can only carry a certain amount of food back to their young, and the farther they must travel in search of food, the more energy they use up before returning.

Furthermore, strategies have only considered the places where adults breed and fish, without taking into account the numbers of young and nonbreeding animals, vital to the long-term health of a population, which typically spend their time in other areas.

The northern seas and the Kurile or Aleutian Island chains may sound remote, but the human impact in these places is very significant on the populations of wild animals. Inadvertently, and without due consideration, we are “managing” those wild animal populations very badly. While there are many members of the public who oppose managing animal populations at all, those same people seem willing to accept the negative impacts humans have on the well being of animal populations as if nothing can be done about it. There is much yet to be done with regard to developing a sustainable strategy dealing with the survival of humans and other forms of life on our precious planet.

Meanwhile there is good news and bad news for other marine mammals. Recent research on humpback whales in the North Atlantic indicated that there may be as many as 10,600 animals. The population was previously estimated in the 1980s at 5,505, though whether the increase is real or only the result of improved survey methods has yet to be confirmed by followup surveys.

While there is hope in the North Atlantic that humpbacks may become a more common sight for whale-watchers, according to a recent paper in the prestigious journal Nature, the whale trade here in Japan includes some very questionable meat.

The meat from a whale killed in Iceland in 1989 was offered for sale in Osaka in 1995! Would you consider buying beef, pork or chicken if you knew that it had been in store for six years? And would you buy it if you knew that it came not from those species but from a similar endangered species?