Starving sea lions spotlight overfishing

Sea lion pups washing up on California shores were color-coded, fed and treated by veterinarians and volunteers at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito last month.
Sea lion pups washing up on California shores were color-coded, fed and treated by veterinarians and volunteers at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito last month.

It is now an all too familiar scene – sea lion pups starving, stranded and being rescued by rehabilitation centers along California’s coast. Without enough fish to eat, mother sea lions are venturing farther from their pups to find food. When the mothers don’t return, the babies either starve on shore, or take to the sea in desperation.

But they don’t yet have the skills to survive, and the sad results are washing up on our shores. It is estimated that 70 percent of California sea lion pups will die of starvation this year.

What has happened to the sea lions’ food?

Though no one knows all the answers, scientists tell us that at least one important component of sea lions’ diet – sardines – has been overfished. The sardine population is now an astonishing 1 percent of what it was in the 1930s, prior to the heyday of Cannery Row. Scientists also say we are heading down a similar path with other important prey species, such as anchovies.

Unfortunately, it has taken starving sea lions to get needed attention to this important issue. We must stop overfishing these species until their populations have rebounded and officials have established rules to prevent future collapse. On Sunday, the Pacific Fishery Management Council took an important step, voting to close the sardine fishery off the West Coast on July 1. On Wednesday, it will consider an immediate emergency closure for this year’s fishery.

The most recent National Marine Fisheries Service assessment shows that the West Coast Pacific sardine population has crashed by 90 percent since 2007, that the sardines have been overfished since at least 2012, and that there aren’t enough to allow a sardine fishery next season, which starts in July. Since 2007, the commercial sardine fishery has taken more sardines than what nature has replenished.

Three years ago, some of the leading sardine scientists predicted the current collapse. Fishery managers, however, turned a blind eye.

Alarmingly, we are seeing a similar situation with anchovy, another critically important forage fish. Recent surveys have found the lowest numbers in decades off California’s coast. Yet there are even fewer safeguards for anchovies than for sardines. The fisheries service has not formally assessed the anchovy population in 20 years and simply allows fishermen to harvest as much as 25,000 metric tons per year.

Sea lions aren’t the only species suffering from the effects of overfishing. California brown pelicans have experienced unprecedented nesting failures since 2010, culminating in a complete failure to reproduce in 2014. Just six years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed brown pelicans from the endangered species list, saying in part that good management of anchovies and sardines would guarantee a sufficient food source.

But even with sardine and anchovy populations at frighteningly low levels, fishermen are still catching them, literally stealing food from sea lions and other hungry predators. This is why fishing for sardines and anchovies must stop immediately.

We also need to establish treaties with Mexico and Canada, whose fishermen pursue the same population of sardines. We need to set scientifically based quotas that prevent overfishing. And we need to pay close attention to species that depend on forage fish and respond quickly when we see warning signs.

When managed properly, wild seafood is generally healthier, and has a much lower ecological footprint than many other foods we eat. If we manage these fisheries right, we can have abundant ocean wildlife, vibrant coastal fishing communities and ensure a healthy food supply for humans. When we don’t, everyone loses.

Geoff Shester is California campaign director of Oceana, a marine conservation group with a regional office in Monterey.