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Stripping the oceans to feed cats

20th April 2003

Comment by Paul Watson
The New Zealand Herald

Paul Watson

All over the world, fishing communities are screaming for the heads of seals, dolphins, pelicans, and even whales.

The reason for this is grossly diminished populations of commercial fish. Simply put, most of the world's commercial fisheries have collapsed or are in a state of collapse.

The reason for the collapse has been a combination of mismanagement and corruption within governmental fishery departments, industrial over-fishing, increasing demand from steadily rising human populations and just plain greed by fishing corporations.

Instead of facing up to the real reasons, government bureaucrats, fishermen, and the public have chosen to make scapegoats of other species that rely on fish for their survival.

Right now the Canadians are engaged in a massive slaughter of seals on the Atlantic coast of their nation and clamouring for a seal lion kill on their Pacific Coast.

The Namibians are killing some 60,000 seals each year.

The Japanese are rounding up and slaughtering dolphins.

Fishermen in California are killing and maiming pelicans and cormorants.

In fact, in every coastal community the story is the same. Kill the seals, kill the birds, and kill the dolphins - anything to save the fish.

Once again, humans lash out without understanding the problem and we will, like we have done so many times before, create further problems because of our unique ability to combine ignorance with arrogance.

Ironically, the depletion of seals and other natural predators is directly contributing to a further decline in fish.

The reason for this is that marine mammals and birds eat fish and remove sick and weak species from the populations they prey upon. In the case of the harp seal, the seals remove species that prey upon cod.

The largest predators of fish are other fish. Seals, dolphins, pelicans and cormorants keep these populations in check and in balance.

Prior to modern global fishing, marine mammal and seabird populations were much more high than today. The seal population on the East coast of Canada alone was close to forty million only five hundred years ago. And there was no shortage of fish. The cod have been reduced to 1 per cent of their original numbers in the last five hundred years by the human species.

Lets put this in perspective. The worldwide population of all species of seals is about 28 million. Yet the worldwide population of domestic housecats is estimated to be around 80 million.

The housecat population of the United States alone consumes 2.9 million tons of fish each year. This means that a country like South Africa's entire annual catch of fish is only 17 per cent of what pet cats in the United States consume.

More than 6 million cats are systematically destroyed every year at a cost in excess of US$45 million dollars.

As seal conservationist Francois Hugo of South Africa put it, "we are destroying our indigenous natural wildlife to feed an unchecked exotic domestic pet market."

It is also a tragedy that over 50 per cent of all the fish taken from the sea is not eaten by people.

Most of it is rendered into animal feed for cattle, chickens, pigs, and most ironically for farm-raised salmon. It takes 30 to 50 fish caught from the ocean to raise and market one farm-raised salmon.

We must be insane to continue to pull the last of the fish from the sea to feed domestic pets and livestock.

Most of these fish are the small fishes like the herring, and sand-eels. The very fish that provide the foundation of the food chain for the larger fish.

The North Sea sand-eel fishery alone has destroyed tens of thousands of puffins and this fishery is exclusively for the livestock feed trade.

If nations simply prohibited the taking of fish to feed livestock and pets, we would effectively cut the annual reduction of fish from our oceans by more than 50 per cent.

But it won't happen as long as there is much money to be made from selling these products and government bureaucrats and politicians do what they are told by the corporations that have the money and provide the jobs.

Unfortunately, this path has only one destination - empty seas, our legacy to the future.

Paul Watson is founder and president of the US-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.