Tears streamed down my 7-year-old daughter's face this cloudy, March morning, as we watched the plight of a lone female California sea lion pup, clearly exhausted, struggling to keep her head above water and get herself to our local beach's jetty.
This sea lion was not the strong, plump and playful sort we had seen in years past. She was so small, kept going under, then her head would barely rise above the water.
We gasped as the pup used the last of her strength to slowly hoist herself onto the jetty, right before another wave came. She made it. We saw her heave a sigh as she collapsed onto a large rock, safe from the water below.
She tried, but could not lift her head, and just laid still and panting. Her bones jutted out, every vertebra and her pelvis visible underneath her brown fur. She looked too young to be without a mother, and she was clearly malnourished.
The Sea Lions' Struggle
Unfortunately, this struggling sea lion is not alone in this heartbreaking condition, which is part of why my own tears came along with my daughter's.
In our city of Carlsbad, Calif., just up the coast from downtown San Diego, at least 40 malnourished, young California sea lions have been rescued since January. According to a local news story, about 150 malnourished or injured sea lions are typically rescued in our region each year -- but this year, from Jan. 1 to not even mid-March, there have already been 130 rescued.
This morning when we called the local sea animal rescue center about the stranded pup, their voicemail said they are extremely busy. A spokesperson from there told the local news that there's "something going on out in the ocean" in relation to our sea lions' food supply. Clearly.
The Bigger Picture
But here's the thing: This isn't just a local issue, and it isn't just about this specific group of sea lions' food supply.
Something is going on with all marine mammals' food supply. Something major is happening with all of our ocean ecosystems. These malnourished pups are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Dr. Bruce Monger, an oceanographer at Cornell University, told my class in eCornell's Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate Program that we as a society have "maxed out the ocean."
He says 75 percent of all major fisheries in the world are currently either fully exploited or over-exploited, and we have less than 10 percent of the top ocean predators (e.g., swordfish or bluefin tuna) today than we had in the 1960s. These fish aren't replaceable, friends.
Many marine scientists believe that, at the rate we're going, the seas will be barren by 2048. (Did you get that? No sea life in 35 years!)
Like the roaming plains buffalo shot by humans to extinction, Dr. Monger says, we can extract every single animal out of the ocean. And with commercial fisheries not just taking all the fish but also seabirds, sharks, dolphins, turtles and every other kind of sea animal (most thrown out by the trawlers, dead, as "bycatch"), we are doing just that.
The sea lions of the Pacific Rim and Alaska are now endangered because, Dr. Monger explains, fishing "took away all their food, and they are starving to death." I contacted Dr. Monger this week and asked him about the California sea lions: Are they next?
He told me scientists are studying two main factors likely causing the crisis with this species: overfishing and climate issues. But, clearly, he said, "the sea lion pups are probably starving because their mothers are starving." Clearly.
You Can Help Save Them
So, here's the other thing: You can actually do something to stop this ocean crisis, whether you live here on the coast, in the middle of farmland or on a mountaintop. We all can.
I get that it's hard, I'm a former sushi lover myself, but we must stop eating fish. There simply are not enough fish left to keep them on our plates, and still leave enough to keep our ocean animals alive. Period.
I've heard all the justifications, and my replies go something like this:
Eating land animal meat is also harming the oceans, by the way. An amazing fifty percent of the world's fish catch is fed to industrial farm animals, not to people (as Dr. Will Tuttle explains in The World Peace Diet). And nitrogen runoff from those factory farms is creating huge "dead zones" where no sea life can survive.
The good news is that pleasurable, healthy, social eating is possible with plant-based food. It just takes making the choice -- to help animals rather than eat them.
Actually, Dr. Monger believes it's both personal choice and political will that will save or destroy our oceans: Beyond urging us to avoid eating fish and other meat, he urges us to speak out against the government subsidies that fuel overfishing.
"The fish in the ocean are as much yours as the fishing industries', and if you would rather see your fish left in the ocean, you have the right to speak up and ask your leaders to help," he says. "If you remain silent about it, someone is going to step in and take [your ocean life] away from you for their own profit."
The Next Generations
This morning, my sniffling 7-year-old asked me why the malnourished sea lion we watched could not find food.
As fishing boats trawled closer to shore than I've ever seen them, I wanted to tell her that the sea lion and her brothers and sisters will find food. That they have plenty of food to find. That the ocean is ripe with life.
But, the truth is, I can't tell her that, because as each day passes, it is becoming less true.
I told my daughter instead that we can make a difference for that sea lion by calling the rescue center to help her. And on a bigger scale, we can make a difference for all sea lions, by not eating their food and by educating others about their dwindling food supply.
Through her tears, my daughter asked me if I could educate more people today.
So, I'm writing this piece today for my daughter, for the sea lions and all the animals, and for the future. Before it's too late -- at the very least -- please do your part to save our ocean animals by letting the fish be food for them, and not for you.