As I’ve previously stated, 80% of marine mammal strandings are due to negative human interaction of some sort. Needless to say, the majority of the injuries or attacks are caused by the people who spend most of their time in the marine environment and who see marine mammals as competition – the fishermen. Peruvian waters are normally considered very marketable, with over 50 species caught for commercial purposes and the 2,414km coastline supporting over 40 fishing ports.
The Peruvian fishing industry used to be based mainly on exporting fish meal, which is used as poultry feed. However, in the 1970s overfishing almost led to the complete disappearance of anchovies in the area. The fishing industry also suffers fluctuations similar to the Penguins, depending on the El Niño, where the warming of the currents will decrease the numbers of most fish species and cause the waters to become far less productive. It can be thought of as slightly understandable that the less marine mammals would lead to more fish, however this is not actually the case and the lengths of harm and torture they are putting the animals through is so unjust, people need to be made aware of the crisis and it needs to be stopped. The reason for the decreasing numbers of fish in the waters and smaller catches is due to factors such as climate change, overfishing and an ever growing number of fishermen – the sea-lion and dolphin population is far from growing – they are not the problem. In fact, ORCA are receiving more and more sea-lions, especially juveniles, who are simply suffering from starvation due to the lack of fish.
Sea-lions have learnt to eat fish off the hooks and this is what juveniles in particular tend to do, because they don’t swim out as far or deep as older members. In response to this well adapted behaviour – fishermen are taking these hooks and attacking the sea lions, leaving huge ripped wounds in their sides, on their head or anywhere else the fisherman can get to. Unlike Dolphins who when they struggle become hooked deeper, sea-lions can escape the situation, surviving but left with the gaping wounds. Fishermen are also using the hooks and various objects as a hitting weapon, causing indescribable fractures and breaks. For example, in January we rescued Alice, who had stranded and been so terrified of humans that she had climbed a rock face around 20 feet high. This was completely understandable, she had 4 deep wounds on her back, shoulder and sides, she’d lost several teeth and had a fractured nose, causing puss and blood to be coming out and her face entirely distorted by the swelling around the hit.
Alice was becoming anaemic due to the wounds and couldn’t properly close her mouth due to the break. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt here it’s that sea-lions are tough animals, far tougher than humans and are able to survive with much worse injuries. But here, Alice was in obvious pain, her whiskers were shaking, she had tears due to the pressure and pain. In order to help her the ORCA team are restraining her 3 times a day, tube feeding her, giving her 1 litre of dextrose and 1 of sodium chloride a day, a full set of injections twice a day, anti-inflammatory cream for her nose and treating her wounds. She is looking better every day, with the inflammation on her nose going down drastically, more colour coming back to her regularly, an obvious increase in strength and health and she can close her mouth. ORCA took her to the vet in Lima where fortunately it revealed the fracture which in time will heal and she will be able to survive in the wild again with a lot more care. Once back at the base she had to have several bone pieces removed that had broken and become lodged in her gums, which should increasingly reduce the pressure and pain in her mouth. It’ll be a while until she’s ready to eat fish again let alone be released, but the ORCA team are giving her everything she needs and allowing her to recover at her own pace. An update 2 weeks later says she is still needing this care but becoming stronger and showing her personality more every day.
It’s not just the fisherman attacking with hooks and blunt hits whilst the sea-lions are in the water, we’ve had many cases of attacks on sea-lions that have stranded – already weak and a much easier target. On Cerro Azul we found a dead baby sea-lion with its head smashed in by humans. Arguably the worst attack I saw had been on Barnacle – who arrived to us completely blind due to a hit to the head. After assessing it was horrifically revealed that his skull had not only been fractured but smashed completely – the fact that he was alive is a show of how hardy sea-lions are, but sadly with this extreme injury there was nothing that could have been done so he had to be put down. This was the right decision because the necropsie revealed that his skull had essentially disappeared – the whole front of his brain was exposed with just tiny fragments lodged in other places.
Fishermen are also becoming more tough with their approaches, with the use of poison. They are putting rat poison into fish they’ve caught and throwing it back in for the marine mammals to consume. ORCA is working on treatment methods to this new crisis, but depending on the level of poison in the individuals systems it means they don’t stand a chance as the poison slowly and painfully burns through their stomach and intestines. The fact that this is not well known or illegal in Peru is awful and people need to be exposed to the horrible truth so no more sea-lions have to suffer or die in this terrible way.
Many Peruvians are generally unaware of these horrible occurrences and are shocked when we tell them what has caused these injuries. By spreading the word and knowledge of what is occurring on and off of the coast, more people will be willing to make a difference and cause a change in attitude and behaviour. ORCA has been interviewed by several media sources about the direct hits and the acid attacks, all in the hopes of a progressive future where education will lead to permanent change and an end to the crisis.