The Decline of the Predator: Potentially Disastrous Consequences

The Decline of the Predator: Potentially Disastrous Consequences

By Christian Chan, Staff Contributor

TitlecardThree-quarters of the species of top predators, including lions, wolves, and polar bears are in steady decline.[1] While reasons differ for the decline of different predators, much of the decline is due to human actions. For example, land-based predators such as wolves and lions are purposely reduced if not eliminated due to habitat disruption, or even overhunting out of fear.[2] Unsurprisingly, humans also play a major role in the decline of sea-based predators, such as sharks, whether through hunting for lucrative catches like shark-fins and tuna, or through the top-down approach that we have taken to commercial fishing; that is, fishing down the food web.[3] And we’ve all seen the sad articles of polar bears dying due to our role in global climate change. We need to realize the serious consequences that these declines can have on our own wellbeing.

Wolves have often been painted as dangerous and harmful to animal populations. This is false, and their existence accomplishes three main things.[4] They eliminate sick animals, which limits the spread of diseases. They distribute nutrients by moving biomass.[5] And they limit the populations of prey and the negative impact prey overpopulation has on the environment.[6] For example, “[i]n Yellowstone National Park, wolf reintroductions caused declines in elk, which allowed the restoration of riparian vegetation and beaver populations. It ultimately led many small birds and animals to return to the park.”[7]

A synthesis of more than a hundred studies over decades shows that decreasing or eliminating predators can damage entire food webs.[8] Examples of this include sea otters, polar bears, and leopards, among others.[9]

“in some extreme cases children are kept from attending school in order to guard the family’s crops”

When sea otters decline in numbers, the growth of sea urchins spike greatly, which causes an imbalance in the ecological system, and leads to a decrease in kelp over ten fold.[10] In West Africa, the loss of leopards has led to a population boom in baboons, resulting in humans competing with them for food sources; in some extreme cases children are kept from attending school in order to guard the family’s crops.[11] Climate change has also restrained polar bears from depending on seals for sustenance, causing them to overhunt eggs of migratory birds.[12] In forest ecosystems, the loss of major predators has lead to an increase in animals that feed on young trees.[13] This has crippled the growth of trees, contributed to deforestation, which leads to less carbon sequestration and is a potential concern with climate change.[14]

“even after the restoration of ecological balance due to reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park, the hunting of wolves has been reestablished in that area, jeopardizing the gains that have been made”

It is well established that decreasing or eliminating top predators create harmful ripple effects that impact every part of our world, from the specific food chain to the environment, and eventually to us. What is disheartening, however, is in the face of these widely accepted studies, human civilization continues to turn a blind eye. For example, even after the restoration of ecological balance due to reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park, the hunting of wolves has been reestablished in that area, jeopardizing the gains that have been made.[15] It is a fact that overfishing is a global problem that we currently face.[16] Instead of curtailing this unsustainable practice, governments around the world actually subsidize overfishing by making it cheaper, by supporting the building of larger boats, the purchasing of gear, offering tax breaks, subsidizing fuels, and so forth.[17] It is estimated that the world’s governments spend around $20 billion dollars a year on these subsidies.[18]

“Interestingly, this includes restaurants, like sushi restaurants that are purposely serving seasonal and sustainable menus, frequently leaving salmon and yellowtail, the most popular fishes, off the menu”

Thankfully, this is not a one-sided battle. Some governments and individuals are taking heed of the problems facing predators everywhere. For instance, the United States actually spends very little in subsidizing overfishing, but rather spends the most worldwide on promoting cautious fishing, including on fisheries management, regulations, and other sustainability programs.[19] Additionally, governments are starting to protect predator populations through grants and recognizing predator protection organizations as tax-exempt non-profits.[20] Individuals too are taking part in the movement against eliminating predators. Interestingly, this includes restaurants, like sushi restaurants that are purposely serving seasonal and sustainable menus, frequently leaving salmon and yellowtail, the most popular fishes, off the menu.[21]

In conclusion, the decline in the population of predators globally has led to consequences that are potentially disastrous. In the face of these facts, many governments and individuals remain blind or worse, they promote these harmful practices. Although this fight will be very much an uphill battle, some governments and many individuals are defying collective action problems by taking a stand and helping in whatever way possible, whether through the persuasive power of a governmental body, or through the menu offerings of a restaurant. Let us hope it is not too little too late.

[1] See Geoffrey Mohan, Decline of Earth’s Top Predator, LA Times (Jan. 10, 2014), http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-predator-decline-ecosytems-20140110-story.html.

[2] See Loss of Top Predators Causing Ecosystems to Collapse, LiveScience (Oct. 1, 2009), http://www.livescience.com/9716-loss-top-predators-causing-ecosystems-collapse.html.

[3] See Effects of Shark Decline, Census of Marine Life, http://www.coml.org/discoveries/trends/shark_decline_effects (last visited Mar. 28, 2016).

[4] See Christopher Stephens, 10 Weird Environmental Issues With Serious Impacts on Wildlife, Listverse (Apr. 15, 2014), http://listverse.com/2014/04/15/10-weird-environmental-issues-with-serious-impacts.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] See Mohan, supra, note 1.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] See Id.

[13] See Loss of Predators Affecting Ecosystem Health, Oregon State (Apr. 9, 2012), http://oregonstate.edu/ua/ncs/archives/2012/apr/loss-predators-northern-hemisphere-affecting-ecosystem-health.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] See generally Overfishing – A Global Disaster, http://overfishing.org (last visited Mar. 28, 2016).

[17] See Brad Plumer & Javier Zarracina, How the World Subsidizes Overfishing, Vox (Mar. 21, 2016), http://www.vox.com/2016/3/21/11275962/fishing-subsidies-overfishing.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] See Organizations Devoted to Wildlife Reform and Protection, Carnivore Conservation Act, http://www.carnivoreconservationact.com/why-is-a-carnivore-conservation-act-necessary/other-web-sites-of-interest (last visited Mar. 28, 2016).

[21] See Janny Hu, Sushi Restaurants Join the Green Revolution, SF Gate (Jun. 1, 2011),http://www.sfgate.com/restaurants/article/Sushi-restaurants-join-the-green-revolution-2369881.php.

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