Endangered Species Handbook

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Persecution and Hunting

Seals and Sea Lions

The Caribbean or West Indian Monk Seal (Monachus tropicalis) was the first animal seen by Christopher Columbus in the New World in the late 15th century, and his crew slaughtered these seals on an islet off the coast of Hispaniola (Day 1981). The only seals native to the Caribbean, they were quite large--6.5 feet long (Nowak 1999). They were heavily exploited beginning in the 17th century for their oil, which was used as a fuel for lamps and, later, for their fur. Scattered populations of the Caribbean Monk Seal survived on islets and beaches far from human habitation until the 20th century (Nowak 1999). Even these last seals were persecuted by fishermen who regarded them as competitors. The last known population of these seals lived on the Triangle Keys, small sandy islets off the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, and in 1911, fishermen slaughtered every one of the remaining 200 Monk Seals (Day 1981). Although a few seals were seen after that time, including the sighting of a small colony on a bank midway between Jamaica and Honduras in 1952, an aerial survey of all possible habitats carried out in 1972, and a 1980 expedition, failed to find any sign that the Caribbean Monk Seal remained alive (Nowak 1999). The species was officially declared extinct a few years later, although a few recent reports have given hope that the species may have reappeared (Nowak 1999).
The Japanese Sea Lion (Zalophus californianus japonicus), a subspecies of the California Sea Lion, was native to Japan, North Korea, and South Korea, and shooting by fishermen played a major role in its extinction (IUCN 1978).
Commercial fishermen have been responsible for the near-extinction of the Mediterranean Monk Seal (Monachus monachus). Once common along the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea, and along the Atlantic coasts of northwestern Africa, this seal is on the verge of extinction, its status listed in the 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Critical. Although resort and industrial development contributed to its decline, shooting by fishermen has been the major cause (Nowak 1999). Many seals drown when they become entangled in fishing nets as well. In past centuries, these seals could be seen on beaches along the Mediterranean, where they would have their pups. After severe persecution, however, they began to hide in the remote caves along the coasts and on uninhabited islets (Attenborough 1987).
In 1981, Greek fishermen threatened to kill off all the remaining Monk Seals on Greek shores if they were not paid compensation for the fish the seals would eat. The Fauna and Flora Preservation Society (now Fauna and Flora International), a London-based organization, raised the money after public appeals in newspapers, which amounted to several thousand dollars.
Fishermen throughout the region became even more intent on eliminating these seals after commercial factory fishing ships began to deplete fish stocks in the Mediterranean.
In spite of legislation protecting the seals, fishermen continue to shoot these seals, which are suffering from lost food supply in most areas. The once pristine waters are now overloaded with sewage and contaminated by chemical and oil spills (Attenborough 1987). The total population of this seal was fewer than 350 in the late 1980s (Attenborough 1987). A 1996 survey found 288 animals, mainly along the African coast in the Atlantic (BBC Wildlife 1996). Unfortunately, the largest population in the African islands was decimated in 1998 by a die-off, apparently caused by toxic chemicals.
Mediterranean Monk Seals are extinct in Cyprus, Lebanon, the Canary Islands and Syria, and probably extinct in most other Mediterranean countries. Researchers are conducting radio tracking studies of young seals to discover breeding calves with the goal of reintroducing the seals in the Canary Islands where they have been extinct for over 400 years (BBC Wildlife 1996).
The attitude that seals and other fish-eating animals are depriving humans of food is prevalent in many parts of the world and has resulted in the killing of countless fish-eating mammals and birds. The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972, which prohibits killing marine mammals in US waters, allows killing of "depredating" seals and sea lions under permit. Such permits are given to kill seals destroying nets to steal fish and/or having a deleterious effect on commercial fish species through their predation. Some Alaskan fishermen, who net the largest fish catches in the world, still resent that the fish are taken by seals and other marine mammals in their waters, and illegal shooting of these protected mammals frequently occurs. Sea lions along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington have been shot illegally by the hundreds since the MMPA went into effect, and many permits have been given for legal killing. These killings have had a negative effect on many populations of these sea mammals.

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