How much is a Steller sea lion worth?

by Michelle Frey

August 11, 2010

Michelle FreyThe Alaskan fishing industry is reeling (pun intended) over a new report out by federal scientists who are calling for closures of some Alaskan fisheries beginning January 2011. Last week, scientists issued their recommendations in a draft report that was delayed for years due to pressure from the fishing industry.

Steller sea lions perish as decision-makers bicker

steller sea lions

By now, Steller sea lions are used to the bickering over their survival. Unfortunately, the place that they call home—the chilly waters off Alaska—is also home to the largest fishing industry in America. More than 4 billion pounds of groundfish—Pacific cod, pollock, and Atka mackerel—are harvested each year in the Bering Sea, Gulf of Alaska, and Bering Islands. Yes, you read that right, 4 billion pounds of fish, each year!

Maybe it seems like common sense to me. If you take away the Steller sea lion’s food, of course they are going to die off. Unlike you or I, they cannot relocate to a new community or find another grocery store to shop at. They’re stuck. And, they’re starving.

In compiling the report, scientists examined every possible angle on the Steller sea lion’s population decline. They looked at everything from climate change to contaminants to disease to the dietary preferences of killer whales. In the end, the scientists concluded that nutritional stress is the main culprit.

To help the Steller sea lions, scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service are proposing to shut down the cod and mackerel fishery year-round across more than 131,000 square miles in the western Aleutians to give the sea lions a shot at recovery. This proposal enraged segments of the fishing industry, as it would cost them $32 million a year in revenue.

Not surprising, the report recommendations leave out any changes to the billion-dollar-a-year pollock fishery.

Pollock and Steller sea lions: The Link

trawling for pollock

The warning signs were clear as early as the 1970s when Steller sea lion populations began plummeting dramatically. Between 1970 and 1976 the first large declines of Steller sea lions were recorded in the Aleutian Islands. Sea lion populations were decreasing as pollock catches were increasing.

Steller sea lion populations decreased 50% by 1988 and 70% by 1992. Despite clear evidence linking the decline with starvation caused by fishing industry removals of billions of pounds of their preferred prey, policy makers have refused to reduce catch levels to account for the needs of species that depend on pollock for food.

Deadliest Catch

If you’ve ever watched Deadliest Catch on the Discover Channel, you can certainly sympathize with the brave men and women who are out day after day battling the harsh ocean terrain. In order to meet “quotas” and net (again, pun intended) the most “gain” fishers have to go out farther and farther in harsher and harsher regions to catch fish. The fishing equipment is so sophisticated, that today fish have literally no place to hide. The business model is to make more money each year, but how can they do that when the fish are fewer and fewer?

What’s next?

Fishing lobbyists are already hard at work. Only a week-old, the report has received criticism from US Senators from Alaska and Washington who are urging the federal government to go slow on any new closures.

Will any regulations be incorporated after all “interested-parties” comment on the draft opinion later this month at a meeting in Anchorage of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council?

Will the Council finally wake up and recognize they must leave more pollock and other fish in the water for marine mammals and sea birds?

One thing’s for sure, the report concludes that if nothing is done, the western population of Steller sea lions faces extinction.

Fish is a finite resource. Once the last fish is caught and the last Steller sea lion is seen, what will happen then? You can’t put a price tag on an empty future.

Greenpeace advocates the creation of a network of no-take marine reserves, protecting 40 percent of the world’s oceans, as the long-term solution to the overfishing of tuna, pollock, and other species, and the recovery of our overexploited oceans. You can sign our petition and make your voice heard.


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