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Would you like some sea lions with your squid rings?

Would you like some sea lions with your squid rings? The problem with trawl nets

Lynley Tulloch

The recent reports of five endangered sea lions killed in one week in New Zealand waters by Sanford squid fishing vessels is disquieting. These sea lions were caught near the Auckland Island marine sanctuary in the Southern Ocean, which is their main breeding ground. They sometimes cross into the squid fishery area looking for food.

The five sea lions were killed by being caught in trawl nets. If sea lions don’t escape in time from a net they will drown. Sadly, if a female sea lion is killed in this way, she may leave a pup to die of starvation on the shore.

Giant fishing nets kill millions of tons of target and non-target marine animals (called by-kill) every year. By-kill is a very real issue for fisheries, and it is difficult to control or mitigate against.

Other recent deaths as a result of trawl fisheries in New Zealand waters include four hector dolphins off the East Coast in December. In addition five majestic Antipodean albatross and one Gibson’s albatross were killed after being caught in long lines over the summer. They were snagged by hooks and dragged and drowned. The tragic deaths of all these endangered species is not pretty.

Sanford has acted responsibly and pulled the vessels out of the area while they assess the situation. They fish the arrow squid, which they claim are nice to eat barbecued, fried or in sushi. Personally, I prefer my squid propelling themselves freely in their ocean home, a source of beauty and prey for the animals who live there.

Sea lions and squid belong in the oceans and they live in ecological balance with other sea creatures. Humans, however, play a negative ecological role in ocean ecosystems. We may love the ocean, but we are not part of it – we don’t contribute positively but take for our own benefit.

We don’t want to lose sea lions – they are delightful with their long whiskers and deep black eyes. According to writer and photographer Laura Manaske who has studied these beauties, they are boisterous conversationalists and bark comically, vocalizing their emotions.

Sea lions in New Zealand are endangered and there are less than 12,000 remaining. Hector dolphins are critically endangered with a population of only 55. From a conservation point of view, losing these valued creatures to fishing nets is unsustainable.

The deaths of the sea lions highlights the many issues associated with the fishing industry. The sustainability of fisheries is one of the most critical issues of our times. Overfishing and by-kill caused by drift nets and bottom trawling is having a devastating impact on marine ecosystems. It results in a loss of biodiversity, a breakdown in the systems that support ocean health, and the extinction of species.

Dr Andre Trites from the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia says that sea lions are top predators - they eat krill, fish and even other warm bodied animals. Dr Trites says that one reason that they are important in their ecosystem is because they influence the community of organisms living on the seabed (called the benthos). They do this by recycling and turning over the nutrients when they search for food on the sea bed. In short, seals play a dynamic role in the ecosystem by transferring nutrients and regulating the abundance of other species.

Sea lions are also important indicator species, meaning that their scarcity is a red flag with respect to the health of our oceans.

Humans know alarmingly little about the oceans – more than 80 per cent remains unexplored. However, we do know that oceans take up about 71 per cent of Earth’s space and are our very life blood. We rely on them for weather patterns and temperature regulation. Oceans produce 50 per cent of our oxygen and absorb 50 per cent more carbon dioxide than our atmosphere.

The true price of squid is higher than your average squid ring at the local takeaways. Current industrialized fisheries are out of step with ecological sustainability – and without healthy ocean ecosystems we risk an uninhabitable Earth.


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