MARITIME MAYDAY

Our oceans’ ecology is all at sea

by Jack Moyer

For many years, I have been attempting to inform people that our life-supporting oceanic wildlife is being rapidly destroyed by human misuse and overuse.

I came to this conclusion not simply by reading reports written by faraway scientists, but by sadly watching my own research sites deteriorate from human abuse: Ofunato Bay at Miyakejima Island; Nakagusuku Bay and Seragaki beach at Okinawa-Honto; Kuroshima in the Yaeyama Islands; the Shiraho coral reef at Ishigakijima Island; my favorite whale shark sites at Mactan Island, Bohol and Bical in the Philippines; a splendid hammerhead shark site near Bohol; etc., etc., etc.!

But the destruction doesn’t stop with sharks, reef fish and invertebrates. Birds are suffering, too — for example, 100 percent of the large breeding population of streaked shearwaters at Miyakejima was destroyed by the illegal introduction of weasels in the early 1970s. Right now, as well, extensive road construction is destroying many of the valuable population of this same species at Mikurajima Island, which is known as the largest shearwater colony in the world.

Recently, however, the results of several “high level” marine research programs have received considerable attention in the upper reaches of numerous governments around the world.

Discarded nets

For example, a report compiled by Scottish and American scientists shockingly asserted that nearly 1,000 whales and dolphins die every day after becoming entangled in discarded fishing nets and other equipment.

Then there was the recent report in the world-class science journal Nature, which stated that in just 50 years, commercial fisheries have emptied the oceans of more than 90 percent of all tuna, swordfish, marlin and other upper-level predators. (Incidentally, much of the data in the report came from Japanese records for longline fisheries between 1952 and 1999).

And as a third example of recent marine research findings, we have a study from the United States predicting that if the U.S. government’s fisheries policy is not strictly revised with an emphasis on conservation and sustainability, the industry will be dead and gone within the next two decades.

In Japan, though, the picture is even more dismal!

Nonetheless, there is some good news, because as a result of these growing concerns, some positive actions have been taken.

Recently, the International Whaling Commission wisely approved a proposal requiring stricter measures for conserving whales. The so-called Berlin Initiative calls for the IWC to work with global wildlife groups to improve the protection of marine mammals. Predictably, Japan’s Fisheries Agency has strenuously protested the adoption of the Berlin Initiative, even threatening to withdraw from the IWC.

Hence it may come as a surprise that Japan’s Environment Agency has already made progress on laws to protect marine mammals in its waters, and cetaceans are expected to be included in the next two or three years. After all, the Fisheries Agency’s main argument is that it is whales that are destroying the world’s fisheries. Clearly, anyone with an education beyond kindergarten should know that predator/prey relationships have existed for tens of millions of years.

‘Traditional’ slaughter

It is we humans, who entered the formerly stable oceanic realm on a really large scale with our high-tech fisheries in the mid- to late-20th century, who have tipped the balance steeply in the direction of mass extinctions and disaster.

Despite this, Shiro Asano, the governor od Miyagi Prefecture, attended the IWC conference and attempted to defend Japanese whaling by claiming it was part of Japanese culture and tradition.

Delegations from more conservation-oriented nations were not convinced. Pointing out that the “traditional” Japanese slaughter of fur seals in the North Pacific was stopped in the 1950s, while the massive destruction of short-tailed albatrosses at Torishima Island in the Izu Islands was stopped as long ago as 1933 (over protests that a traditional way of human life was being destroyed), the majority of the IWC delegates were of an opinion I share (in fact, it has been my opinion since childhood): “Traditions that destroy the precious ocean environment should be immediately abandoned.”

For the record: Japanese feather-hunters took up to 2,800,000 short-tailed albatrosses from Torishima in the late 19th century, in the process almost exterminating the species. Recent heroic efforts led by Hiroshi Hasegawa are bringing the species back at a rate of 7 percent per year, but at that rate more than 100 years will be required to return the albatrosses to their former abundance.

Concerning rapidly diminishing populations of various tuna species, Japan operates 1,600 longlines, using 130 million hooks. In addition to tuna and sharks, this fishery kills roughly 1,800 black-footed albatrosses and 1,400 Laysan albatrosses annually, as well as many red-footed boobies, so gradually driving these species toward eventual extinction. Little wonder that conservation-oriented nations are furious over Japan’s claim that it is whales that are upsetting the oceans’ ecological balance.

Perhaps recent data that mercury-contaminated marine wildlife, including whales, dolphins and tuna, are a threat to human health will lead to a badly needed reassessment of the government’s fisheries policy — perhaps even totally eliminating commercial whaling since even sperm whales from the Southern Ocean “scientific” fishing grounds are heavily contaminated with mercury and harmful “industrial chemicals.”

As Andreas Rosenthal, IWC Commisioner for Mexico, said, voicing favor for the new whale conservation committee: “It is about bringing the IWC up to date.”