Tag Archives: seals

Killing seals to save orcas is dangerously short-sighted and won’t work

Not that long ago, fishermen killed Southern Resident killer whales because the whales were eating Chinook salmon…let that sink in while we explore whether killing marine mammals has ever worked in the long haul to save salmon populations.
In a few days the annual slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan, will begin its six-month bloodbath. Among the reasons that fishermen hunt down and kill dolphins is the industry’s deeply held belief that marine mammals compete for fish.
Can that happen in the Salish Sea? As disturbing as it is to think about, the answer is yes – dolphins and porpoises have no substantial protections and their “takes” are managed by NOAA.

Japan’s example

After countless decades of the slaughter and subsequent reduced dolphin populations, Japan’s fisheries catch has spiraled down to an all-time low. Japan’s solution? They’ve added even more dolphin species to the kill list this year.
By the 1970s Japan had already driven the indigenous Japanese sea lion to extinction and to this day they continue to cull Steller sea lions annually.

Western Steller Sea Lions are listed as vulnerable in the Threatened Wildlife of Japan Red Data Book. Hattori and Yamamura (2014) reported that over 200 Steller Sea Lions were culled annually between 1960-1993 to reduce predation on commercial fish stocks.
Recent work indicates that the annual culling was then reduced to a limit of 116/year until 2010 at which time a new 5 year quota of 1,030 culled Sea Lions was imposed. This resulted in an increased annual average take (Matsuda et al. 2015).

Despite the culling, the Japanese fishing industry is on a steep decline – their catch of 12.8 million tons of fish in 1984 was down to 4.3 million tons in 2017, an all time low.

Killing seals to save a few fish

If the concept of killing off marine mammals to leave more salmon for fisheries has failed in Japan (where salmon catch declined by 27% last year), why would we assume that culling marine mammals would succeed in restoring Chinook salmon for the endangered Southern Resident orcas?
With proposals on the table to extend the killing to all pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) in Puget Sound and other areas of the Salish Sea, how long will it be until demands are made to cull dolphins and porpoises as well?
Does the idea of killing one kind of marine mammal to save another make any sense whatsoever when there is no evidence that it will succeed longterm?
It may seem unthinkable, but if we allow the government to permit the killing of one marine mammal species to save another by attempting to control fish predation, it is a slippery slope to go from seals and sea lions to dolphins.

Harbor seal  Photo Credit: Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge
Yet that is a solution being bandied about by special interest groups concerned with the Chinook salmon population – they want to take out sea lions and harbor seals as a quick solution to what is really a complex problem.
There may be some logic to culling if the seals and sea lions were directly eating the orcas, though even if that were the case and we decided to cull orca predators we would have to start with the most effective and damaging predator.
And that would be us.

Southern Resident orcas were once killed by fishery interests

There are living members of the Southern Resident orcas who were once shot at, harpooned, and subjected to the noise of seal bombs by fishers who resented the competition for salmon. The US Navy gunned down an entire population of fish-eating orcas in Iceland to “help” the fishing industry there.
As the Southern Resident orca population decreased in the Salish Sea due to culling (either by being killed or captured for display, similar to what goes on in Taiji), Chinook salmon still continued to dwindle. Killing the orcas didn’t bring back salmon. Nor will killing pinnipeds.


But fishing is not the only way that humans are driving the abundance and evolutionary biology of salmon – we have added evolutionary pressures by altering the environment as well.
Dams not only impede the salmon’s journey, but dramatically alter stream and river ecology. Salmon must navigate challenging hatching conditions, endure siltification of their natal streams and rivers, and withstand marginal water temperatures – then survive being flung through the dam turbines on their seaward journey.
They must escape predators that gather at the dams, and the young salmon must cope with the lake conditions present in the manmade reservoirs created by the dams (which gives a huge advantage to some of the predatory fish species and is not natural to the salmon). Finally, the young fish encounter estuaries that are often inadequate in both food and places to hide.
Research shows that the battering the young salmon take on their way to sea increases their mortality while at sea – this means that the debate over how accurate the statistics are on how many smolts initially survive the dams is a small part of the equation since they are more likely to die at sea.

Abstract.—The numbers of Snake River salmon and steelhead Oncorhynchus spp. have substantially declined since the completion of the Columbia River hydrosystem. We used analytical approaches to identify management options for halting the decline of these stocks, such as removal of Snake River dams and improvements to the existing hydrosystem. The benefits these actions are predicted to have in terms of salmon recovery hinge on whether the mortality that takes place in the estuary and early in their ocean residence is related to earlier hydrosystem experience during downstream migration. Evidence from the literature demonstrates numerous mechanisms that would  explain this delayed mortality in relation to a fish’s experience passing through the hydrosystem. Spatial and temporal comparisons of stock performance provide indirect evidence of delayed mortality and evidence that delayed mortality is linked to hydrosystem experience. Recent mark— recapture data also provide evidence of differences in delayed mortality by route of passage through the hydrosystem. The different types of evidence discussed here suggest that the delayed mortality of Snake River fish is related to the hydrosystem.

On their return trip, the salmon must battle the same conditions, and again must make it past those dams, increasing the time they must spend in getting to their natal streams.
And then there are the bears…do we kill them too?

Photo Credit: Tahitia Hicks / AP

The Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force

Government tends to balk when the cost of acting is high – whether that cost is in dollars, jobs, energy, or security – because it is also our government’s job to protect us and to oversee the growth of our nation in the long term. Our government tends to favor a cost/benefit analysis, and this can be detrimental when swift action is called for with respect to environmental issues, such as in taking decisive action to restore our salmon fishery.
For years Washington State has performed controlled culling of the sea lions that congregate at certain dams but only after other methods were exhausted. Now Congress has bills in the works which will allow loose control over whether the killing is humane and reduces oversight as it increases the number of animals that can be culled.
Governor Jay Inslee’s establishment of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force is an inspiring and bold move to come to terms with conflicting beliefs, and it’s possibly our last opportunity to step back, look at the big picture, and think about future generations.
The process has underscored to me how open and willing those of us who live in this region are to pitch in and look for resolution when it comes to salmon and orcas, a subject where the potential for conflict is high. Our personal lifestyles and regional self-interests are deeply challenged as we weigh the needs of the whales against our own – yet what has become clear is that we are unified in a desire to “get ‘er done”.
We seem to be on the road to solutions, the quickest of which would be to increase salmon passage on the lower Snake River dams.
But let’s leave the seals and sea lions alone.

Reference links:

War of the Whales: A True Story

Congress plans to kill male California sea lions and undermine NOAA Fisheries management

Killing the animals that co-evolved with salmon won’t help restore fish populations – we need to remove just a few of the 15 dams on one of the rivers that flow into the Columbia River.

Female California sea lions remain in southern California and points south, all year. Photo credit: NOAA

Male California sea lions migrate south in the breeding season, and some stop in the Columbia River to eat salmon on the way down to California.     Photo credit: Bridget Samuels via Flickr

A branded male sea lion. Photo credit: Pillip Colla

Following the breeding season, male California sea lions leave the Channel Islands and other rookeries and migrate north, eventually seeking out protected inland waterways in the winter. The females remain in the general region of the rookeries, and so aren’t among the sea lions that Congress aims to wipe out.
The crime? Eating salmon that congregate at dams – specifically those on the Columbia and Willamette river systems. Two bills – one that passed in the House of Representatives, and another working its way through the Senate – remove any semblance of management and open the door to wholesale slaughter of pinnepeds.
Presently the fisheries services must prove that a sea lion is actually eating salmon before he is euthanized. This involves branding the animal if he lacks identifying marks, then keeping track of him.
To get around that, the new bills define ‘identifying marks’ as being in the river past more than 112 miles from the ocean. In other words, he just has to be a sea lion. For the Senate bill, it just has to be a pinneped, meaning harbor seals. Neither bill specifically excludes the endangered Steller sea lions.
The bills increase the number of animals that can be killed, who can kill them, and where.
The senate bill expands the prey issue from salmon to any species of fish.
The sea lions will still catch salmon entering the rivers, though they may need to work a little harder. It is pointless to try and wipe them all out, even if it made any kind of logical sense. From TDN.com:

[Dr. Naomi Rose], a biologist with the Animal Welfare Institute said Tuesday that killing more sea lions will not reverse the decline of wild salmon runs.

“The main problem is that this is not going to solve the problem,” Naomi Rose, the institute’s marine mammal biologist, said in an interview. “This is an example of lawmakers scapegoating these natural predators to satisfy the anger that constituent groups feel toward salmon decline.”
Rose said wild salmon numbers have fallen mostly due to a loss of habitat and the construction of dams on the Columbia River.

Killing more sea lions could even make the problem worse, she said, because sea lions consume other species of fish that eat young salmon.
The decline of salmon, one of the region’s iconic species, has been attributed to a host of factors: overfishing, habitat destruction, construction of the hydroelectric dams and predation by Caspian terns and cormorants.
Sea lions historically have shared the salmon’s ecosystem, but their numbers have rebounded while the fish runs are still far below their historic, pre-dam levels.
So the mammals’ impact on salmon runs is more pronounced, especially because manmade structures like fish ladders have made it easier for the sea lions to catch them. TDN.com

The Senate bill:   https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/1702/text
The House bill:   https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/2083
Information on California sea lion migration:  Migration Patterns of Adult Male
California Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus)
Removing the four lower dams on the Snake River:  DamSense.org

This Unique Seal Species is Taught to Carry Toy Guns For Show (Video)

Baikal seals basking in the sun (image: Sergey Gabdurakhmanov under Creative Commons http://www.flickr.com/photos/gabdurakhmanov/)
Baikal seals basking in the sun (image: Sergey Gabdurakhmanov under Creative Commons http://www.flickr.com/photos/gabdurakhmanov/)

“No words can describe the feeling that is left after meeting a living nerpa (Baikal Seal) somewhere in a quiet bay or near Ushkany Islands. The trustful, open look of the seal’s big clever eyes will charm everyone. For hours the animals can bask in the sun playing with their kin.”
Then there is this:
IN PHOTO: Seals dressed in military uniforms swim during a show marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two, at an aquatic park in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, Russia, May 9, 2015. Reuters/Evgeny Kozyrev
IN PHOTO: Seals dressed in military uniforms swim during a show marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two, at an aquatic park in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, Russia, May 9, 2015. Reuters/Evgeny Kozyrev

These Baikal seals, while not endangered, are unique in that they are the only fully fresh water pinniped species known to exist. They are fascinating animals in their own right, yet it is this show that brings them and the Aquatic Park in Irkutsk, Russia notoriety…no doubt you will laugh out loud at the absurdity.

According to the aquarium:

A pair of seals joined the entire Russian nation in the annual celebration of Victory in Europe Day, or VE Day, on May 8. This year, 2015, two seals staged a show wearing military outfits and holding toy weapons while performing tricks in the water.
The Baikal seals, named Winnie the Pooh and Laska, are from Irkutsk’s aquarium located in the Siberian town. The show featured them wearing military headgear and shooting on targets placed in the aquarium. ibtimes.com.au

The seals look healthy, and while the act is as kitschy as any I’ve ever seen, it is pretty clear that their lives would be even more sterile and dull in their pool without training – their trainer thinks the seals are ‘smarter than dolphins’, and if so it is an even more compelling reason not to keep them in those circumstances. By no stretch of the imagination do these conditions ‘resemble their wild habitat”.

Siberian Times reports that the seals are placed in an aquarium with conditions that resemble their wild habitat. They stay in 2-3-degrees Celsius aquariums much like the temperature in Lake Baikal. They also eat the same food they eat when in the wild.
Evgeniy Baranov, founder of the first seal circus in the world, told Siberian Times that the new show is an improvement of the tricks that the seals have learned previously and that these animals get better with practise. Baranov said he has worked with seals for more than 25 years and thought they are smarter than dolphins. ibtimes.com.au

But what does the public learn from these shows? I found little on the Baikal Seal Aquarium website, although that may be a problem with the English version. To get the facts on the seals’ life history I had to do a quick internet search.
What is truly fascinating about these seals (sources: Seal Conservation Society, Science Blogs, Irkutsk.org, BWW.ir.ru) is how they are adapted to fill a unique ecological niche:

  • The Baikal seal, one of the world’s smallest pinnipeds, is in fact the only pinniped species that lives solely in freshwater. Individuals are also sometimes found wandering up the rivers surrounding the Lake, one seal having been found 400km upstream.Despite their small size, they are surprisingly long-lived, with males living to 52 and females to 56 (incidentally, Caspian seals are also long-lived, surviving to age 50). Further remarkable is that female Baikal seals continue to reproduce while in their fourth decade. They don’t begin to breed until they are around 20 years old.
  • They forage day and night, and vary their hunting strategy accordingly.
  • Most of their diet consists of a high fat fish found only in Lake Baikal – this fish is not commercially taken, and the seals actually help preserve other fish species by consuming these predatory fish:
  • The golomyankas – the big and the small species – live only in Baikal. Their size does not exceed 24 centimetres, they have no scales, and they are nacreous (mother-of-pearl) in colour and transparent. They contain up to 35 per cent of medicinal oil rich in vitamin A.

  • The golomyanka is the most numerous fish in Baikal, its resources amounting to about 150 thousand tons. However, in neither of its life stages does it swim in schools, so it is not included in the food-fish list. Old residents say that a long time ago, after storms, golomyankas were gathered alongside the shores and the fat was melted and used in treatments for rheumatism, atherosclerosis and for healing wounds that would not scab over for long.


  • One of the reason for [a] migration to the bays and shallows is for a ‘course’ of “self-treatment”. Here they feed mainly on the sandy big-headed sculpin whose intestines always contain differing amounts of sand or silt. The sand and silt builds up in the nerpa’s stomach and has an effect on the parasites (worms) forcing them to leave ulcerous pits in its stomach and leave the body in a mass with the faeces. It is specifically in the autumn that one can find such silted up stomachs in nerpa, cleaned of parasitic worms, with the wounds of ulcers healing and healed.
Babies are hunted for their white pelts.
Babies are hunted for their white pelts.
  • The hunting of young seals (“kumutkans”) is thought to be the main factor that led to a change in the population structure and a decrease in the reproductive success of the species in the 1980s. As well as the official hunt there is an increasing problem with poaching caused by weakening enforcement and rising prices for the fur of young seals. Fur hats made from seal fur cost approximately 700 rubles each. Undocumented kill has been estimated at 20-40% of the official kill.


  • There is a serious problem of pollution in Lake Baikal, research showing that organochlorines and other chemical pollutants build up through the food web in the Lake and accumulate in the seals as top-level predators.

&Do you think that the sheer absurdity of this particular show does anything to educate the public about Baikal seals?

Do you think this seal show helps the wild seals?


Quiz Maker


Beluga Imitates Human Speech, a Seal Talks, and an Orphaned Orca Imitates a Boat. Who Knew?

“Who told me to get out?” asked a diver, surfacing from a tank that housed a young beluga whale named Noc. It turns out it was the whale ‘speaking’, as shown in this 1985 video just released by The National Marine Mammal Foundation. (See abstract below).

From the Wild Dolphin Conservation Society:

The research was published in Current Biology and shows that these vocalisations were two octaves lower than usual and were made before the whale reached adulthood. Noc, the beluga whale who was recorded making these unusual sounds, died in captivity some five years ago. Yet, it has taken all this time for this research to emerge.
And what did one of the staff at this captive facility believe he heard Noc say when he was in the water cleaning his pool? ‘Out’
Was that ‘Get out’ or ‘Let me Out’? Perhaps we’ll never know.

In contrast, here is a brief clip of natural Beluga sounds:

The classic evidence for vocal production learning involves imitation of novel, often anthropogenic sounds.
Among mammals, this has been reported for dolphins, elephants, harbor seals, and humans.
A broader taxonomic distribution has been reported for vocal convergence, where the acoustic properties of calls from different individuals converge when they are housed together in captivity or form social bonds in the wild.
Vocal convergence has been demonstrated for animals as diverse as songbirds, parakeets, hummingbirds, bats, elephants, cetaceans, and primates. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved).

In other words, many species of animals imitate sounds in their environment, and when they are deprived of normal interaction with their own species at a young age they appear to try to establish communication with other species.

Here is something to consider – it may even turn out that the belugas imitate sounds in their environment and incorporate it into their dialects – and this could include other human languages such as Chinese or Russian (belugas are a circum-arctic species):

Abstract for the article on Noc in Current Biology: Although dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) have been trained to match numbers and durations of human vocal bursts [1] and reported to spontaneously match computer-generated whistles [2], spontaneous human voice mimicry has not previously been demonstrated. The first to study white whale (Delphinapterus leucas) sounds in the wild, Schevill and Lawrence [3] wrote that “occasionally the calls would suggest a crowd of children shouting in the distance”. Fish and Mowbary [4] described sound types and reviewed past descriptions of sounds from this vociferous species. At Vancouver Aquarium, Canada, keepers suggested that a white whale about 15 years of age, uttered his name “Lagosi”. Other utterances were not perceptible, being described as “garbled human voice, or Russian, or similar to Chinese” by R.L. Eaton in a self-published account in 1979. However, hitherto no acoustic recordings have shown how such sounds emulate speech and deviate from the usual calls of the species. We report here sound recordings and analysis which demonstrate spontaneous mimicry of the human voice, presumably a result of vocal learning [5], by a white whale.

Leonardo DiCaprio Is Drawing Attention to the Antarctic Marine Sanctuary

I’m writing to ask for your help. In days, governments could turn stretches of the Antarctic ocean into the world’s largest marine sanctuary, saving thousands of majestic polar species from the threat of industrial fishing fleets. But a small group of countries could drown the deal unless we act now:
Most countries support the sanctuary, but Russia, South Korea and a few others are threatening to vote it down so they can plunder these seas now that others have been fished to death. This week, a small group of negotiators will meet behind closed doors to make a decision. A massive people-powered surge could break open the talks, isolate those attempting to block the sanctuary, and secure a deal to protect over 6 million square kilometers of the precious Antarctic ocean.
The whales and penguins can’t speak for themselves, so it’s up to us to defend them. Let’s change negotiators’ minds with a massive wave of public pressure — Avaaz will surround the meeting with hard-hitting ads, and together we’ll deliver our message to delegates via a deafening cry on social networks. Sign this urgent petition and share it with everyone you know:
More than 10,000 species call these remote Antarctic waters their home, including blue whales, leopard seals, and emperor penguins, and many are found nowhere else on Earth. Climate change has already taken a cruel toll on their fragile habitat, but they will come under further threat from the industrial fishing fleet’s mile-long nets cast over these precious waters. Only a marine sanctuary will increase their odds for survival.
The 25-member governing body that regulates the Antarctic oceans has already committed to creating these marine protected areas. But the two plans being negotiated — one to protect part of the fragile Ross Sea and one for East Antarctica — are at risk of dilution or delay. Shockingly, the talks have been off the media’s radar and countries like Russia and South Korea are betting their opposition will go unnoticed, but if we cast a public spotlight on the talks we can force them to back off, and encourage champions like the US and EU to push for even stronger protections.
The Avaaz community has come together time and time again to protect our oceans. We’ve already helped win two of the largest marine reserves in the world. But the threats to our oceans continue, and one by one species are coming closer to the brink. Join me in saving the Antarctic ocean before it’s too late.
With hope,
Leonardo DiCaprio, with the Avaaz team
Protect Antarctic waters before it’s too late, says environment coalition (The Guardian)
Alliance Seeks Vast Marine Reserves in Antarctic (New York Times)
Milestone discussions on marine protected areas in Antarctica scheduled for CCAMLR’s 31st annual meetings in Hobart (Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources)
Antarctic oceans are under threat (Antarctic Ocean Alliance)
Antarctic seas in the balance (Nature)

Seal Pups Kept by Aquarium Until the Cuteness Wore Off, Now Face Slaughter

Update 9/19/12 – Due to public outrage, these two seal pups will now be released to the wild: Care2 Success! Seal Pups Saved from Certain Death Read more: http://www.care2.com/causes/care2-success-seal-pups-saved-from-certain-death.html#ixzz26vTrpLzx
Please consider helping to right this wrong – in world dominated by shades of gray in decision making, this issue is clearly black and white.

Harp seal pups are protected during the 'white coat phase'. (Creative Commons)

Seal pups face slaughter by an Aquarium – Please sign the Petition

We are writing to urge you and your organizations to take immediate steps to help save the lives of Zak and Mika, two captive 6-month old Harp Seals pups. They were captured from the wild this spring as newborn pups by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO-MPO) for the purpose of providing them to the Aquarium des Iles in Quebec for tourism display.
The Aquarium des Iles were told in advance by DFO-MPO that the seals would NOT be allowed to be released back into the wild after they served the aquarium’s purpose. This purpose was to give the aquarium seasonal display animals to draw tourism. Once their season is over on September 15, by joint agreement, the seals will be executed in the name of ‘research’.

When the pups have molted hundreds of thousands are hunted for their coats each year.

From the National Marine Fisheries Service:
Females give birth to pups near the southern limits of their range from late February to mid-March. Pups nurse on high-fat milk for approximately 12 days, during which they gain about 5 lbs (2.2 kg) per day and develop a thick blubber layer. At birth, harp seals are just under 3 feet (1 m) long, and weigh about 25 lbs (11 kg). Called “whitecoats,” newborns have long, wooly, white fur known as “lanugo”, and undergo a complicated series of “molts” before reaching adult coloration. Harp seal pups are abruptly weaned from their mothers when they weigh approximately 80 lbs (36 kg). Adult females leave their pups on the ice where they remain without eating for approximately 6 weeks. Pups can lose up to half of their body weight before they enter the water and begin feeding on their own.
After pups are weaned and left alone, adult harp seals begin mating. Adult females undergo a period of suspended development known as “delayed implantation” during which embryos do not attach to the uterine wall for three months or more. This allows all females to give birth during the limited period of time when pack ice is available.
During breeding in February and March, and when molting in late spring, harp seals aggregate in large numbers of up to several thousand seals on the pack ice. During extensive seasonal migrations, large groups may feed and travel together.
Harp seals are prey for polar bears, killer whales, and sharks.

One of their top predators is man – senseless, brutal slaughter for the sake of vanity.

In 2003, the three-year quota granted by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was increased to 975,000, with a maximum of 350,000 in any two consecutive years.