JOEL W. HEDGPETH
NATURE MAGAZINE, Volume 37, page 443-445
In California they are after the sea lions again. Our favorite fish and game columnist, whose morning column can usually start us off for the day in a fighting mood, is leading the hue and cry. "The sea lions should be reduced to a harmless handful; they are destroying tons of fish we need for wartime food and which provide sport and recreation for tired war workers" is the substance of his remarks.
Of course, it cannot be denied that sea lions eat fish, but this is an old story. Back in 1874, when California had just established a Fish Commission, one of that Commission's first official actions was to recommend that nine-tenths of the sea lions be shot and their carcasses reduced to lubricating oil, because the salmon were getting scarce. Some years later, an investigation was made of the food and population of the sea lions, but as far as the scientists could determine, the quantities of commercially important fish eaten by the animals were insignificant. Now the story is that the sea lion population has increased of late, and therefore the animals are eating more fish. The fish are getting scarcer in San Francisco Bay, they argue. And what more obvious cause of this decline than the horde of sea lions off the Golden Gate? Therefore, let us kill off most of the sea lions - nobody cares about them anyhow - and then we will have more salmon and striped bass in the bay.
Let us say we exterminate the sea lions, not even leaving a polite remnant for the sake of the Nature lovers. The fish will still be on the decline, especially when the effects of the big dams being built in California's streams catch up with the salmon runs and the irrigation ditches disrupt the bass spawning grounds. We will have no sea lions left on which to blame the decrease. And, because of the fantastic price of shark livers, there will be precious few sharks of any kind left in the ocean to blame. Then what shall we exterminate to save the fish? The inference, we are afraid, is obvious. We will have to exterminate ourselves. For it is not the sea lions that have increased to vast destroying hordes, but ourselves. The statisticians are not in agreement over the precise figures and percentages, but all agree that California has practically doubled its human population in the last few years, especially in the San Francisco Bay region.
But the day of miracles is past; we cannot multiply our fishes to feed this multitude. If everybody is to have the same amount of fish they did before the war boom, that would mean that twice as many fish would have to be caught as were taken before all these people came out to work for Mr. Kaiser. But since the fish population must depend on its own reproduction, rather than on mass migrations from other parts of the ocean, to manintain itself, its rate of increase, if any has no relation to the potential human consumers. If we grant for the sake of the argument, that the pre-war consumption of fish was adjusted to the natural reproductive capacity of this fish (which it probably was not), there is but one answer. If we want the fish to go around, we must expect to eat half as many as we did before, for to double the catch would be the end of the fish population. This is the sort of thing conservationists have been trying to drive home for years, but it is too unpalatable for those who want to eat or catch their fish and have them too. So it is much easier to blame anything but ourselves for the decline of the fish and the destruction of other natural resources.
Fortunately, because of wartime restrictions, use of boats by the Navy and other factors, we have not yet succeeded in doubling our catch of fish, and the discovery that there may not be enough to go around at the old rate has not percolated into the mind of the general public. It only seems that something else is eating up our fish, so we blame the sea lions.
One more point to make is that it doesn't seem that a commercial fisherman could ever be called an environmentalist, with the large nets that kill seals, whales, dolphins, and seabirds, whether accidental or not. I'm not even sure if a sports fisherman qualifies as an environmentalist even if they only fish by "catch & release" with no additional barbs on the hook. I'm thinking about all the fishing line that is snagged on rocks and kelp and left in the environment. It is still pollution, not to mention, the risk to animals such as seals and birds getting snared in the fishing line and eventually dying by a slow torturous suffocation. Perhaps, we need to have biodegradable fishing line that disintegrates after a few hours in the water? Incidentally, what about the hunters that leave all the bullet shells behind that litter the ground everywhere, except in National Parks and State Parks where no hunting is allowed. Also, isn't the lead and other metal found in bullets a form of pollution and poison to wildlife? The last I heard, bullet shells are pollution too. I don't beleive that hunters pick up after themselves in the sense of picking up their bullet shells. Why do we call those "shells" anyway, they are not pretty on the beach or the land, and we don't collect them? In addition, most of us become worried and upset when we see these shells, since it is an indication there might be a hunter with a gun nearby, who might mistake us for a deer or bird. Well, anyway, at least the 99% of us Californians who don't fish or hunt, are truer environmentalists, aren't we? Let us, as citizens and environmentalists speak out and ask our Governor and State Legislature to abolish the Fish and Game Commission, and to replace it with an Environmental Commission. The first order of new business, could be to change the name of the California Department of Fish and Game, to the Department of the Environment and Endangered Species. Then the Commission could address the situation of fishers and hunters in California.