28 September 2003

Slaughter of great whales leads to marine life decimation

The wildlife of the north Pacific has been devastated by a remarkable 50-year chain reaction set off by commercial whaling, scientists claimed yesterday. Numbers of sea lions, sea otters and several species of seals have crashed in recent years, because of the mass slaughter of more than 500,000 whales in the Pacific between 1949 and 1969, the researchers believe.

As the great whales such as sperm, fin and sei whales disappeared under the harpoon, killer whales, which used to prey on them extensively, were forced to find new food sources and switched to the smaller marine mammals, causing their numbers to plunge in turn, the group of American marine biologists say.

Harbour seals declined first, followed by fur seals, then sea lions and most recently sea otters. Their alarming declines had been a mystery.

The scientists, whose theory is in The Journal of the US National Academy of Sciences, contend that a 'domino effect' set off by the huge post-war whaling boom, led by Russian and Japanese whalers, is the real root cause.

If true, it is one of the most chilling examples yet of how man's large-scale interference with ecosystems can have unintended and terrible consequences elsewhere.

Bugger! I thought I was part of an irresponsible rent-a-crowd opposed to whaling because whales are big, cuddly and cute. Now it looks like they actually play a serious environmental function. I'll just have to find another cause.

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