Steller sea lions on Amak Island

Steller sea lions on Amak Island

(Editor’s Note: Earlier this year, Mission Blue reported on orphaned sea lion pups washing ashore in California for the third year in a row. For today, we revisit the issue, as well as the ocean’s growing vulnerability to climate change, with an article Belinda Waymouth wrote in the The Huffington Post back in April 2013.)

It’s time to get smart about our oceans and pronto.

Record numbers of starving baby sea lions are coming ashore in Southern California. Since the beginning of the year 1,100 small and cold pups have left the ocean. This exodus is three times higher than normal. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration dubs it an unusual mortality event. Scientists are scrambling to work out what’s happened to sea lion food sources.

Easier said than done. The ocean is a complex system of interconnected food webs, which we can’t see from the surface.

Sea lion pup. (Image Credit: Dag Peak / Flickr)

Sea lion pup. (Image Credit: Dag Peak / Flickr)

But one thing we do know is that many fish stocks are seriously depleted right now because of us. I am not saying we are causing this sea lion starvation. But this is the hour to wise up about our fish-eating practices, or blue fin tuna and sockeye salmon will be the fish, we once-upon-a-time loved to eat. But getting smart is easier said than done.

I buy fish with the Marine Stewardship Council label of “sustainably fished” approval. Every environmental handbook urges eco-conscious consumers to do so. But, turns out the label is not a green light signaling ‘go’ for the recovery of over-fished species, and guilt-free brain-enhancing omega-3 dining for my family. It’s green-washing. The MSC has good intentions, but has bestowed its coveted label on fisheries at the very edge of collapse.

It happened with Canada’s prized fraser river sockeye salmon. In 2009 it was announced sockeye populations were crashing. A massive study was undertaken, but while the plight of the fishery was under investigation, the sockeye was green lit by the MSC as “certified sustainable seafood.” The MSC did slap some better fishing recommendations on to supposedly help sockeye populations rebound. Nonetheless researchers were appalled.

I was aghast when I got the news about MSC. I’m an Environmental Studies major, I’m supposed to be one step ahead of the green-washers. Turns out the MSC — like me — means to do the right thing, it’s just once again, easier said than done. Ironically, the MSC is a victim of its own good intentions. There is such a high customer demand for sustainable fish (from Walmart to Whole Foods) the pressure is on to approve fisheries — even the not-quite-good-enough ones. Walmart is also a big donor to MSC, so the council is caught between an ethical rock and a harder place — the environment and corporate power-players.

Meanwhile out there in the oceans, fisheries are reaching collapse north, south, east and west. Highly prized Pacific blue fin tuna sushi is about to be a delicacy of our very recent past. Reports in January say the population is down 96 percent: That’s extinction time — especially as 90 percent of blue fin caught are juveniles not even at spawning age.

But with the kind of money blue fin commands — the first blue fin caught this season sold for a record $1.76 million at a Tokyo fish market — you can see the dilemma. The tuna that fetched this publicity-stunt-inflated price was only 489 pounds, less than half the size a blue fin can reach.

And size does count. Take the West Atlantic swordfish. Back in 1960 its average size was 270 pounds, now it’s a much slimmer 90 pounds. They can be legally caught, supposedly sustainably, at a mind-warping whisper-thin 44 pounds — yet swordfish can’t reproduce until they are 150 pounds.

The MSC gave the Canadian Atlantic swordfish fishery its stamp of approval, outraging marine scientists and environmentalists — not over the size of the swordfish caught, but the long-line fishing method used. For every swordfish caught, two sharks die (unintended by-catch). North Atlantic shark populations are down 40-60 percent in the past few decades.

I am a pretty nonreligious person — a burnt-out Anglican. But on Easter Sunday, my 8-year-old daughter insisted we go to Mass. When the priest talked of simple garden-variety resurrections he had witnessed, I thought about the fish in the sea…

It’s a no-brainer we need some real life species resurrections right about now.

Blue fin tuna are the tigers of the sea. They are aqua-dynamic marvels, reaching speeds of up to 50 mph, at the top of their evolutionary game — and like us — their food chain. But herein lies the problem: All food chains now end with us. Someone better send a memo to the Japanese, who gobble up 81 percent of the world’s fresh tuna.

Our collective, voracious appetite for sushi and other delicacies is messing with the ecology of the ocean. Forget the Amazon rain forest being the lungs of the earth. Oceans provide the oxygen for seven out of every 10 breaths you take. It doesn’t take a sage to know we should not mess with the third day of God’s handiwork.

Image: WikiMedia Commons

Image: WikiMedia Commons

Eighty percent of Americans want to eat sustainably caught fish. If the blue-and-white MSC label is not all it’s cracked up to be, how do we do that? Spend a few minutes with the one who knows all — the Internet. With a few clicks, you will be immersed in an information fiesta of fishy facts.

Free fact: Alaskan black cod (aka sablefish) is one “best” choice option.

But the bottom-trawling truth I’m afraid may seem unpalatably un-American. The “best” fishing practice is probably to eat: not one fish, not two fish, but simply less fish. Because even if the MSC label and governmental data could always be relied on, I don’t think it can be fish-business as usual. Unlike the starving baby sea lions we have other food options.

If we, the politicians, the corporate CEOs, the people, can perform some miracles of informed, considered restraint, maybe we could help pull off some resurrections.

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One Response

  1. Hi Belinda, I couldn’t agree more regarding sustainable fishing practices. I’ve seen documentaries on drag nets and overfishing, that needs to change, it’s ridiculous.

    Also wanted to ask, have you ever heard of Fukushima? That’s the nuclear plant in Japan where they had 4 nuclear meltdowns. They’ve been dumping water into it 24/7 since March 11, 2011 and it flows into the Pacific.
    Check out my blog if you have a chance.

    Lastly, there’s a secret trade agreement going on called the TPP. If passed, irradiated fish from Japan could legally be imported into the US without testing.

    Found you on twitter btw

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