Whales, seals or men? Who stole all the fish?

IT IS a classic conservation dispute, fuelled by stark images and emotive arguments. Fishers accuse whales and seals of eating their precious, diminishing fish stocks, leading to renewed calls that these mammals be culled to safeguard the future of a beleaguered industry.

Conservationists and animal welfare advocates retort that it is the other way round. They see the notion that whales and seals eat too much fish as unwarranted propaganda intended solely to justify archaic and inhumane whale and seal hunts. What's more, they say, overfishing is taking food from the mouths of some of the world's most endangered animals, stifling their recovery.

Surprisingly, it now appears that for most marine animals and most fisheries there is nothing to argue about. The first global study of its kind, released last week, shows that marine mammals and fishing fleets rarely prey heavily on the same fish stocks.

The findings are provisional, but they suggest that scientists and policy makers should only rarely need to make a wrenching choice between the economic needs of fishers and their desire to protect threatened marine mammals.

This week, Norwegian ships set sail to resume their country's hunt of minke whales, and Canadian hunters are continuing their cull of harp seals, the largest for 50 years.

Debates over whether such animals degrade fish stocks have raged for years. Japan and Iceland, for example, continue to press the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to allow a resumption of commercial whaling, partly on the grounds that this will allow fish populations to grow, says IWC secretary Nicky Grandy. And fishers in North America routinely claim that seals and sea lions eat so many cod and salmon that they reduce the fishers' take.

Conversely, environmental groups such as Greenpeace contend that overfishing has destroyed the food sources of whales and seals off the Atlantic coast of Canada. In Alaska, Greenpeace and other c

Contact: Claire Bowles
New Scientist

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