Warning: This post contains sad and disturbing photos of injured and deceased sea animals.
In January I wrote a post about the adorable Steller sea lions of Resurrection Bay. Unfortunately, they’re endangered.
It was only when I started learning about sea lions for the blog that I discovered this fact, and after some debate I decided that I should share the sad side of my sea lion research with you. So here goes:
Alaska’s sea lions
U.S. Steller sea lion populations are divided into two genetically distinct stocks, the western, which includes the Aleutian Islands, Bering Sea, and Gulf of Alaska (that’s us), and the eastern (California to southeast Alaska). Both populations experienced a significant decline in the second half of the twentieth century, with the western’s being more dramatic. It’s estimated that this stock of sea lions declined by 70-80% from 1970-1990, with an additional 40% between 1991 and 2000. This decline earned it a place on the endangered species list in 1997, and there it remains. Because of its precipitous drop in numbers, the western Steller sea lion is one of the most heavily studied marine mammals in the world.
The exact cause of the decline is not completely understood and is likely multi-factorial. As with other marine mammals, threats to sea lions come from many sources, including:
- Boat and ship strikes
- Climate change and habitat degradation: With global warming also comes rising seas, rising water temperatures, and increased water acidity, all of which affect both sea lion habitat and the quality and abundance of their food sources. Mama sea lions are forced to eat “junk food,” which in turn affects nutrition and health for both parents and pups alike.¹
- Hunting: Sea lions have been hunted for centuries. Alaskan Natives have long used sea lions as a source of food and clothing, and in the 18th and 19th centuries, Russians and other European settlers hunted them for their meat, fur, oil, and whiskers, the last of which the Chinese used for toothpicks!
It wasn’t until the 20th century, when sea lions were targeted because they eat fish, that hunting adversely impacted their numbers. From 1900-1970, Steller sea lions, and in particular the eastern population, were hunted under the purview of predator control to such an extent that their population was seriously depleted by the time the Marine Mammal Protection Act passed in 1972. (Canada passed a similar law, the Fisheries Act, in 1970.) It took several decades, but the eastern population has since rebounded.
While the killing of sea lions is now illegal in the U.S., Canada, and Russia, illicit hunting and shooting is still a common occurrence, and in Japan Steller sea lions are hunted annually, ostensibly to protect fish populations.
- Natural born killer (whales): Not having gotten the newsflash that Steller sea lions are endangered, orcas and sharks continue to eat them. A 2007 study² found that killer whales polished off an estimated 3-7% of the sea lion population in Kenai Fjords National Park (near Seward), and this included a fair number of pups. For a species that doesn’t reproduce in great numbers, such predation may have an impact on Steller sea lion numbers.³
- Ocean debris: A more universal threat to sea lions is ocean debris. Discarded and abandoned fishing equipment is especially dangerous. Gill nets, longlines, and trawls can entangle, ensnare, and hook sea lions, while rope, nets, and monofilament line can strangle them.
Sea lions may also swallow hooks, lures, and longline gear:
And this debris doesn’t just harm sea lions, of course:
In a phenomenon known as “ghost fishing,” animals are unintentionally caught in discarded fishing nets.
It’s not just discarded fishing gear, however; trash of any kind can harm sea lions and other animals. Plastic packing bands, for example, can be deadly.
These bands–used on merchandise packaging, fishing supplies, and bait boxes–are a common culprit in the maiming of sea animals.
According to NOAA, packing bands cause more than 50% of neck entanglements seen in Alaska’s Steller sea lions. An intact band can lead to this:
Trash, especially plastic trash, is not just choking our wildlife; it’s choking our oceans as well.
And all too often, that crap ends up in the guts of animals such as this one:
The problem, however, is much bigger and more insidious than water bottles and abandoned fishing gear (or any of the other random objects that have washed up on beaches, including Legos, rubber duckies, Doritos, household appliances, and human feet!). Truth is, most of the ocean’s pollution is so tiny that it’s barely visible. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade; it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics, which then turn the water into a “cloudy soup” or “plastic smog.”
We also have to contend with microbeads, which are microplastic particles manufactured and then added to personal care products as an exfoliant. Many face washes, shower gels, cosmetics, and toothpastes contain microbeads. Once we use them to exfoliate our skin or brush our teeth, these tiny little pieces of plastic pass through water filtration systems and end up in lakes, rivers, and oceans. According to the BBC, a single shower may result in as many as 100,000 plastic particles entering a water source.
Microplastics are bad for several reasons: first, unlike pieces of trash that we can see, it’s almost impossible to remove microplastics from the water. And second, animals may ingest them either directly (as in, a tiny fish that mistakes them for plankton), or indirectly, (as in, the bigger animals up the food chain that the tiny fish is a part of). Not only do microplastics leach toxins into the water as they degrade, but they also absorb pollutants that can poison the animals ingesting them. They’re bad news.
So now that I’ve bummed you out, what can we do to fix the problem?
I know that the issue of polluted oceans and endangered species is complex, and it seems like a problem without solutions. All of us, however, can and should be more responsible stewards of our planet. Here are 10 suggestions, most of them so simple that we can start implementing them today:
- Problem numero uno is plastic. We need to reduce plastic usage. A good place to start: stop using disposable shopping bags and water bottles.
- Drink from the tap. If you’re worried about whether your water is safe to drink, you can get a water quality report online (every town is required by law to have one; here’s the link to Seward’s). If the report displeases you, obtain a water filter. You’ll find affordable, highly effective ones on the market.
- Take reusable shopping bags with you to the grocery store.
- Urge restaurants to use compostable to-go containers instead of plastic or styrofoam ones, or take your own to-go containers with you.
- Recycle and reuse.
- Dispose of garbage appropriately. It’s not just the oceans; litter pollutes rivers, lakes, beaches, fields, parks, roadsides, parking lots…. The list of places that don’t need our discarded rubbish is endless.
- Even if you don’t live near the ocean, packing bands and rubber bands go to landfills and can end up in the water, so cut them:
9. If you fish, please dispose of your gear properly. NOAA offers further information and suggestions here.
10. Don’t purchase products that contain microbeads. Beat the Microbead is a great resource for determining which products to avoid. (Note: Soon American consumers won’t have a choice; Congress passed H.R. 1321, the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which bans the manufacture of products containing microplastics as of July 1, 2017.)
The bright side
Yes, there is a bright side. Sea lions are still around, as are seals and sea otters and sharks and whales. And amazing places exist, not just in Alaska but all over the world, and these spots are worth preserving.
And because our individual actions have an impact on the world, that means we have some control over what happens to that world, and we can take steps to lessen our impact. By taking action, no matter how small, we have the potential to make our planet cleaner and also make life better for sea lions and the other creatures of the sea.
If you want to explore this subject further, here are some resources:
- Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Lose the Loop program
- This Oregon State University study, which found that Steller sea lion entanglement is preventable
- National Geographic short film on YouTube, Are You Eating Plastic for Dinner?
- Vancouver Aquarium’s video, Sea Lions Cut Free from Garbage
- NOAA’s Marine Debris Program
- Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s informative but heartbreaking video, Entanglement of Steller Sea Lions in Marine Debris: Identifying Causes and Finding Solutions: This video answers a question that I wondered about–Why don’t Fish and Game employees just capture the animals and remove plastic bands and fishing gear from around their necks? It’s not that simple. If they tranquilize a sea lion, they run the risk that it will jump into the water and drown. It’s best to just prevent the entanglement from happening in the first place.
¹ The article I referenced, “Sea lion pups are starving because their moms are eating junk food,” is actually about the increased number of California (not Steller) sea lion pups washing ashore, starving and malnourished, but the same factors that affect food sources for California sea lions also impact Steller sea lions.
³ The authors of the study make the observation that orca predation appears to be impacting stable eastern Steller sea lion population numbers more than the endangered western Stellers.
Featured photo (top): Part of a large group of sea lions that we saw in Resurrection Bay last weekend