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"They're Stealing All Our Fish!" How over-fishing is contributing to Sea Lion Starvation

If you've been following the news from the coast, you know that sea lions are starving to death in droves, and scientists are trying to figure out why. Sea birds are also starving. While everything from the weather to the animals themselves has been blamed, there is one glaring omission in the targets of investigation into this mystery....
[caption id="attachment_486" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, filled to capacity"]


[/caption]As word comes in that sea lions are starving to death on the coast, we are forced to reconsider the impact that fishing is having upon the entire ecosystem. It seems that both sea birds and marine mammals, and in particular sea lions, are the canaries in our coal mine once again. They are dying in droves, unable to find food. Fingers have been pointing everywhere except at the one very obvious culprit: The fishing industry. Mass Starvation The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, reports that thousands of calls from concerned citizens are pouring in to their facility from all over the coast, reporting stranded and starving young sea lions. Rescuers are taking in hundreds of the animals, but they simply cannot keep up. Staff at the center say they've never seen so many strandings before. The same story is playing out all down the coast. The Pacific Marine Mammal Center down in Laguna Beach, hundreds of miles to the South, tells the same, sad story. There, too, hundreds of sea lions are starving. It's not only the sea lions, though. Sea birds are also being found weakened and dead, apparently unable to find food. Earlier this spring, 500 cormorants were found starving on a California beach, and from California to Cascadia, we have been watching endangered murrelets weakening and dying due to an erosion of their natural food supply since at least 2006. So far, officials are calling the mass die-offs a "mystery." Speculation has been rampant that an El Ni?o event is on the horizon, and in fact, NOAA recently confirmed that en El Ni?o has begun in the Southern ocean. The shifts in ocean temperatures that come with El Ni?o are legendary for disrupting the feeding patterns of sea lions and sea birds. However, I recently spoke with the director of education at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, and she told me that it is unlikely that this is the source of the die off. She said that an El Ni?o is almost certainly coming, but that it is still so far down South, near the equator, that it almost certainly is not yet impacting the animals she is seeing. But something is clearly killing off these sea lions. In a single day at the Marine Mammal Center, I witnessed three separate necropsies, performed on three young animals, all of whom had starved to death. Two had virtually no blubber on their bodies at all, and staff at the center told me that it appeared that they had not eaten in "more than a month." [caption id="attachment_489" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Necropsies (the way they should be done, not the way the ODFW does them)"]


[/caption]On the following day, I watched a truck filled with small crates, each carrying an emaciated young sea lion, heading toward the center. I was told that as many as 20 sea lions a day were being brought in, and that "only the sickest" could be treated due to lack of space and resources. Meanwhile, tourists flocked to Pier 39 in San Francisco, to see the famous Pier sea lions. But the site was less charming this year, and more filled with pathos, as children lined the docks and cooed helplessly at three tiny, deflated forms lying on the end of the pier. All three were very small, very young animals who appeared to be in desperate need of the services of the Marine Mammal Center. I could see their ribs poking out from their sides, and they seemed too weak to move. Alas, the center was already filled to capacity. [caption id="attachment_490" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Recovering patients"]


[/caption] Outpouring of Public Concern Every year, sea lions are brought to the Marine Mammal Centers on the coast, suffering from traumas caused by their association with humans: There are the inevitable gunshot wounds, wounds from clashes with speedboats, injuries from being tangled in nets, and poisonings. Literally thousands of sea lions die every year due to human-induced traumas, many of them never reported. At the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, there are photographs, stories, bones, and skulls chronicling the very high cost that humans extract from sea lions. But this year, many more animals than necessary are showing up, suffering from the effects of mass starvation. The public seems to be expressing overwhelming support for the plight of these sea lions. Donations and volunteers are pouring in to the marine mammal centers, and citizens are making desperate phone calls on behalf of stranded animals. Even celbrity spokespeople are getting involved, making pleas on behalf of these animals. Yet these are the same sea lions who, if they survive this famine, will later run the risk of being shot or injected with poison on the Columbia. These animals migrate between their breeding grounds in Southern California, and their feeding grounds in Cascadia. Will ODFW be trapping and killing sea lions who were rescued in Sausalito? If the killing is allowed to continue, it is virtually certain that this would be the case. And so all the concern, all the resources, and all the donated time and labor of so many people who have worked so hard to save these animals might be ignored by wildlife managers on the Columbia, who would rather kill sea lions than address the real causes of the decline of fish populations all over the Northwest. The Role of Over-Fishing in the Mass Starvation The irony is compounded when we dig a little deeper into the reasons WHY these sea lions are starving. While experts at the Marine Mammal Center are dubious about claims that El Ni?o is to blame at this point, they are seriously considering the possibility that it could be some as yet unknown change in climate or ocean conditions. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been alerted to the problem, and they say they are looking into the issue. So far, they conclude that "something" is happening, but they do not know what. Joe Cordero, a wildlife biologist with NOAA says it's clearly connected to the food supply, and that it could be the climate, but he too says that the impending El Ni?o is still too far to the South to be changing the temperatures off the coast of California yet. "We have to consider all possible alternatives. And no one knows what effect climate change has made in California just yet. We don't know if there's any environmental conditions, any oceanic conditions that have been affected by climate change that are causing the prey to disappear in certain areas. So we really have no clue as to what's going on," said Cordero. Certainly, there is the possibility that global warming is causing havoc in the fisheries, the same as it is causing problems elsewhere in the world. This could very well be a contributing factor in the killing of the sea lions. However, there is another factor that Cordero and corporate media pundits have thus far ignored: The role of over-fishing. Although Cordero claims that "We have to consider all possible alternatives," this is a very glaring alternative that NOAA appears not to have considered. Nevertheless, it came into sudden focus last week, when thousands of dead sardines began washing up on California beaches. Here is why that is so important. Young sea lions feed mainly on sardines, as well as anchovies, and herring. Coincidentally, this is also the main food supply for the cormorants and murrelets who have also been dying off on the coast. The public has been mostly unaware of the vast scope of over-fishing targeting these species - that is, until the mystery of the mass sardine kill was solved earlier this month. People walking the beach ran into wave upon wave of dead, rotting fish that fouled the beaches. When the public began to probe into the huge, stinking mess of rotting sardines littering their beaches, they discovered something horrifying: The tens of thousands of dead had washed ashore allegedly after a tear in a single net, from a single fishing boat -- one of an entire fleet of fishing boats plying the waters just off shore on the California coast, day after day after day. In an article exposing the mystery (http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/ci_12767881?source%253Dmost_emailed.26978592730A3B8C7F471EACE0DA4EF2.html), we learn that members of the public are beginning to connect the dots:
The sight of the fish washed up on the beach Saturday had many residents crying foul. "Birds and sea lions are starving, yet we have these big fishing boats coming out to our shore every single day, most of the day," said Stacy Patyk of Seacliff. "Come on."
Unsurprisingly, Fish and Game officials were quick to deny any relationship between over-fishing and the starvation of those species who depend upon the fish being swept up by the thousands in nets. According to the article, Fish and Game officials claimed that they would be "hard-pressed to establish a link" between the dead sardines and the dead sea lions. Indeed, it is difficult to see what you are willfully determined not to see. Nevertheless, the evidence is mounting. Sardines were once so plentiful in the Pacific that they made up one quarter of all the fish killed in the United States. In Monterey Bay, where so many sea lions are now starving to death, the infamous Cannery Row, immortalized in American literature, canned millions upon millions of sardines. And then, a familiar story: By the early 1950s, the California sardine fisheries had collapsed. Their numbers crashed so low that fishermen were no longer supposed to fish for them at all, but bizarrely, they were still allowed to keep and sell sardines that were caught "incidentally." In other words, if they "accidentally" caught thousands of sardines while trying to catch some other fish, they could still profit from killing them. The sardines hovered close to extinction until, among other things, fishermen began killing so many anchovies that the sardines began to move in to fill the niche left behind by these close relatives. (Anchovies would otherwise compete with sardines, so that when the fishermen began killing off so many anchovies, some of the sardines began to recover.) About the time that the sea lions were recovering from the brink of extinction, the sardines were also returning to the waters of the pacific. These two species recovered together, side by side, for several decades. Then, in the past decade, and especially in the past few years, fishing pressure has been mounting once again on the sardines. What initially looked like the possibility of "explosive recovery" for the sardines began to look more like a return to the days of excessive fishing and decline. As larger fish disappeared from the oceans due to over-fishing, more fishermen began to go after these smaller fish. An article that recently appeared in the New York Times bemoans the depletion of all the fish in the oceans:
"We've totally depleted the upper predator ranks; we have fished down the food web," said Christopher Mann, a senior officer with the Pew Environmental Group.
The same article reported that a 2006 study "concluded that if current fishing practices continue, the world's major commercial stocks will collapse by 2048." Other studies have found that as much as 90 percent of the large fish in the world's oceans are now gone, due to over-fishing and the unsustainable greed of the fishing industry. It could soon be more than the sea lions who are starving to death for lack of fish. The NY Times article mentioned above points out some of the waste involved in the killing of the sardines:
...[T]he biggest consumers of these smaller fish are the agriculture and aquaculture industries. Nearly one-third of the world's wild-caught fish are reduced to fish meal and fed to farmed fish and cattle and pigs. Aquaculture alone consumes an estimated 53 percent of the world's fish meal and 87 percent of its fish oil. (To make matters worse, as much as a quarter of the total wild catch is thrown back ? dead ? as "bycatch.")
Indeed, it could very well be that the fish washed up on the California beaches were bycatch -- a fate that also threatens many NW salmon. Either way, feeding these fish to cattle, pigs, and other fish to convert them to a marketable product is not only unsustainable, it is also extremely inefficient. Any time we try to convert animal- or plant-based food into animal flesh that is then to be killed and converted to human flesh, we introduce inefficiency. The amount of sardines it would take to produce a pound of beef, for instance, is much greater than the yield. Not only that, since fish are most definitely NOT a natural part of a cow's diet, we are also introducing imbalance and potential pathogens into the systems of cows forced to endure a short and abused existence on factory farms. In any event, it is clear that the sardines are once again being fished from the ocean at an unsustainable rate, and the wanton waste of the nets off the California coast are extracting a heavy toll on the animals who depend upon these fish to survive. An entire ecosystem is unraveling all around us, and again and again fishing is at the heart of the matter. Just as optimistic forecasts here in Cascadia keep promising "record" salmon runs that never materialize once the fishermen are set loose among those fish, so have continuous, overly-optimistic forecasts of sardine numbers caused wholesale killing of that species to skyrocket. And, just as with the salmon, the sardines are an integral part of the entire food web, so that the human toll being taken on them has repercussions all through the ecosystem. Sea lions are starving to death, while commercial fleets scour the ocean and kill their prey by the tens of thousands. Irony And so the plaintive bleating of NW fishermen who have been clamoring for the blood of sea lions seems doubly ironic now. The men who have been complaining into the faces of television cameras that "those sea lions are stealing our fish!" have just been caught red-herring-handed. Even as they demand that sea lions die for "eating too many fish," even as the corporate media unquestioningly labels the sea lions "voracious" and "greedy" and "fish-gobbling," it turns out that it is the fishermen, and not the sea lions, whose unsustainable killing spree is driving all the fish in the ocean toward extinction. And by extension, those same people who demand redress from the sea lions for the "crime" of eating, are now unmasked as one of the chief culprits behind the inexcusable mass starvation of sea lions. I suggest that every one of the sea lions who dies as a result of starvation this year be counted against the 85-animal quota that the state plans to kill next spring. In that event, more than enough have already died, and the killing must be suspended.

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