Ben Hills

Rausu: The ancient Ainu tribes called this place Shiretoko – the end of the world. For hundreds of rare and protected sea mammals that is a prophesy about to come true.

The Shiretoko Peninsula is the Land’s End of Japan’s most northerly island, Hokkaido, a snow-covered spit jutting into the frozen waste of the Sea of Okhotsk. Here, every winter, out of sight of the world, blood stains the ice.

The victims of the annual slaughter are sea lions, the largest of the seal family, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act in the United States, and just about every other country – including Australia, where its cousins are a tourist attraction at Kangaroo Island in South Australia. But not here.

In Japan they are called todo, but nicknamed “umi no gangu”, the gangsters of the sea, because of the volumes of fish that they eat – up to 20 or 30 kilograms of salmon a day – and the damage they do to fishermen’s nets.

They are marked for extermination.

No-one knows for sure how many of these sea lions (technically the Steller sea lion, Eumetopias jubatus) are left alive – probably fewer than 100,000 in the entire basin of the North Pacific that stretches from Japan to Siberia, Alaska, and down the coast to California. Japan is the only one of those countries where they are not protected.

Every winter fishermen and professional hunters shoot about 1,000 sea lions in the waters around the Shiretoko peninsula and the Sea of Japan, hacking off the tips of their flippers to claim a $A60 bounty from the local council and the fishing co-op here in the village of Rausu.

And the massacre gets other official endorsement – until a few years ago, the army base at nearby Niikappu used to regularly use them for target practice. Local newspapers reported that on one occasion crowds lined the beach cheering “bullseye” as the troops emptied M19 and M15 automatic gunfire into a colony of sea lions sunning themselves on “Todo Rock”.

The killing season runs from December through to March. This is when an armada of icefloes drifts down through the Sea of Okhotsk past the Kurile Islands where the Russian Government has established sanctuaries for the sea lions to breed.

With the icebergs floats a cloud of plankton. Following the plankton come the fish. And feeding off the fish are the unsuspecting sea lions.

They travel in harems with one huge bull – they grow up to four metres and can weigh a tonne – and a dozen or more females half that size. Their fur is a mottled reddish brown, and they are called sea lions because of the blood-curdling barking roar they make when they are agitated.

As soon as they reach Japanese waters it is open season.

“The place to hit them is under the ear when they stick their heads up to breathe,” says Mr Hajime Takahashi, a local hunter, screening a video of himself blowing sea lions out of the water from a skiff manoeuvring between the icefloes.

He points out the blood spurting in the air and staining the ocean and the ice.

Mr Takahashi is one of 20 government-licensed sea lion hunters based in Rausu. There is no bag limit – he gets 40 in a “good” season, and estimates that he has killed more than 3,000 over the years. Some finish up as sashimi on the menu of the restaurant he owns, or in tins.

It raises no eyebrows among tourists passing through nearby Abashiri Airport – many of whom have thrown fish to the three sea lions in the town’s marine mammal park – to see cans of curried sea lion meat among the stuffed swans, the snap-frozen prawn brains and Hokkaido Camembert at the souvenir shop.

Shuzo Hoshino, a director of the Rausu fishermen’s co-operative, defends the price on the sea lions’ heads, saying they do tremendous damage to the fishery. Rausu, population 8,000, has an economy based on the salmon, squid, turbot and pollack its fleet of 350 boats bring in.

Lately the catches have been declining. So have the sea lions. Four years ago the co-op and the council paid a bounty on more than 300 dead sea lions. Last year it was 50; so far this year only 10 have been killed.

Across the ocean at Seattle, in Washington State, Dr Howard Braham is concerned at the vanishing sea lions. He is the director of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory (part of the US Government’s National Marine Fisheries Service) which last year published the most comprehensive international survey of sea lion numbers.

It concluded that there were probably only 116,000 sea lions left in the world – about half the population of 30 years ago. Although Dr Braham believes that the Japanese sea lion slaughter is only one factor in this dramatic decline, he says:

“No-one wants to see a local population go extinct, and that is what could happen. I can appreciate that the local fishermen want to protect their fishery, but it does not make good ecological sense to wipe out one species to benefit another.”

Inside Japan there has been no debate about the killing – unlike the controversy over whale-hunting, and the annual seal slaughter at various fishing towns. The computer data base for the four English language newspapers in Tokyo lists no entries.

“Todo has no friends,” says Hidemi Osada, a university conservationist. “They only come here in the winter, so no-one notices them. All eyes go to the whales – they are the trendy issue.”

However, behind the scenes, the Japanese Government’s fisheries bureau is well aware that sea lion numbers have fallen drastically, and that the country may be targeted in an international “save-the-sea-lion” campaign.

Said Masashi Kiyota, a marine scientist: “To date there has been no criticism of Japan from abroad, but if Greenpeace was to find out it would be huge, especially if they knew that the Hokkaido Government was paying a bounty.”

Late last year, the bureau began Japan’s first major scientific survey of sea lions, which will include capturing a number and tagging them with transmitters so that their movements can be tracked by satellite.

“(My boss and I) lobbied for this project, because he realised that if the story got out it would be as big as whales,” said Mr Kiyota.

“The Fisheries Bureau wants to be seen to be doing something before the fire starts.”

The fire may not have started yet, but 2,000 kilometres to the north the firing has begun, and the blood of the sea lions is once again staining the ice.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Monday 1 March 1993
Edition: Late
Section: News and Features
Sub section:
Page: 1
Word count: 1214
Keywords: Wildlife Conservation