Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Lions and Tigers and Cod, Oh My!

In the wake of the Cecil the Lion debacle, you’ve got to wonder about any scientific report that is illustrated with a photo of a smiling young girl squatting beside a lion she presumably killed. If you go to the website for the magazine Science, you can see such a photo above a headline that reads, “Super predator humans are hunting other animals out of existence.”

The story goes like this: After analyzing about 300 studies of how humans and other predators kill prey species, researchers at Canada’s University of Victoria determined humans and other predators kill herbivore prey at about the same rate, but humans kill large carnivores at nine times the rate of other predators. According to the researchers, humans kill carnivores as trophies and because they compete with humans for prey. Their other conclusion was humans kill adult fish at 14 times the rate of other predators. As a result, the reproductive behavior of some fish is adapting to breed at a younger age.

An example used by the researchers is Atlantic cod, where older, larger fish are more productive breeders. Researchers say fishermen now target big cod and spare the small ones, leading to less productivity. What the story doesn’t mention is that the collapse of Atlantic cod is a well-documented example of gross overfishing. After providing a stable human food source for over 500 years, cod, especially in Canada ,were nearly wiped out in about a decade following the introduction of industrial-scale commercial trawling.

At any rate, it is difficult to fathom how the industrial harvest of Atlantic cod relates to the trophy harvest of African lions. The Science story, as well as another from the Associated Press point out the study has plenty of critics, one of whom referred to it as “rubbish.”  However, another scientist supported the research with the following quote:

Marine ecologist Nicholas Dulvy from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada, is pleased with the work. Hunting and fishing have “not captured the public attention necessary to change the status quo,” says Dulvy, who was not involved with the study. “The disparity between human and animal predation rates is a useful way of illustrating how ecologically out-of-whack many exploitation rates and management policies are.”

Dulvy has a point. We don’t have to look beyond the borders of our own state to find plenty of examples, past and present, of unsustainable exploitation rates. We can look at the decline of various walleye fisheries—Lake of the Woods, Rainy Lake and Red Lake—where diminishing walleye numbers were due to overharvest, largely via commercial netting. Reducing exploitation rates through the cessation of netting and the adoption of hook-and-line management strategies allowed the fisheries to recover.

The same may be said for our present situation with low white-tailed deer numbers. A high exploitation rate, intended to lower the overall population, may have gone too far when coupled with natural events like two severe winters. Recovery or deer numbers should be relatively easy, because managers can reduce exploitation by issuing fewer permits to kill antlerless deer. As a matter of fact, that’s how sustainable game and fish management works. Fish and game managers devise harvest strategies intended to ensure a more-than-adequate portion of the breeding populations survives.

To say that humans, at least in North America, harvest only the largest specimens when they hunt and fish suggests the researchers were—dare I say it—clueless. Hunters and anglers are generally keenly aware of the need to protect breeding stock, which is why the harvest of game birds such as pheasants and ducks is regulated to protect females. In sport fishing, catch and release has been the norm for more than a generation. Many anglers who choose to put a big fish on their wall as a trophy release their catch and get a replica mount instead.

While I don’t wholly buy into the theory that hunting and fishing harvests are “compensatory mortality” (a portion of the population that would be lost to natural mortality anyway), there are very few modern examples of where regulated hunting and fishing has caused game and fish populations to decline. In my experience as an outdoor writer, generally hunters and anglers are the first to notice declining populations and often press managers for more restrictive regulations. Also in my experience, those managers may be slow to recognize and react to those same declines. An excellent example would be Lake Superior’s native coaster brook trout, which were managed with high bag limits and no size restrictions for decades before anglers demanded better protection for the fish through minimizing harvest. The result has been a noticeable recovery in the coaster population.

Commercial exploitation is another matter entirely, especially when applied to the world’s oceans. Our seafood menu seems to shrink every year as desirable food fish are overharvested to the point of commercial extinction. One of those fish is the Atlantic cod, which disappeared from the menu during the 1990s. You can’t blame anglers for that one.

As for African lions, wolves, grizzly bears and other carnivores, regulated hunting plays an out-sized role in their continuance as viable species. While it is true, that except for life-and-death situations, no one “needs” to kill a large carnivore, those who decide to do so have a vested interest in ensuring the animals remain on the landscape and are willing to pay to protect the animals and their habitat. That said, the relationship between people and large predators is complicated. For instance, many people who would never kill a bear or a mountain lion are deeply afraid of them. The same fear exists within some of the hunters who pursue them. Such fear, as well intolerance of predation on domestic livestock, led past actions that nearly wiped out some predators.

Aside from the industrialization of marine harvests, the greatest threat to the world’s fish and game is all of us.  Human land use very often leaves any room for other creatures. Habitat loss due to human development is without question the greatest threat to the world’s wildlife. For that, there are no easy fixes.

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