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Paul Dean

To Activists, SOS Means Save Our Seals

February 06, 1988|Paul Dean

Sometime between now and late spring, Scott Trimingham predicts, a dozen gray whales and hundreds of seals and countless dolphins will die in California fishing nets.

If that reads like a shock poster for marine mammal conservation, so be it . . . says marine mammal conservationist Trimingham.

He is president of Sea Shepherd USA of Redondo Beach. That's the American chapter of a controversial squadron of eco-guerrillas who sometimes take laws into their own tough hands. Led by Canadian Paul Watson, they have used bombs, boats and their bodies to block and scuttle the vessels of whale, seal and dolphin hunters worldwide.

This weekend, the pace will be quieter and within the law, as Sea Shepherd activates a Marine Mammal Rescue Team.

It's a mobile, three-boat operation tied to a telephone hot line. Sailors, pilots, even tide-pool watchers who see a tangled whale, a distressed dolphin or a seal in trouble, are asked to call (213) 543-2888.

"We will have three inflatable rubber boats, on trailers, with 65-horsepower outboards, ready to go," Trimingham said. "We hope to augment the agencies--state Department of Fish & Game, the National Marine Fisheries Service--who are in charge of official response to such emergencies." And, he said, the team is looking for a few good persons to ride their Zodiacs.

"But," emphasized team leader Rick King, "volunteers should all be certified divers, experienced boat handlers or have worked with marine mammals."

King qualifies on all counts. As a Navy frogman, he was involved with the splashdowns of Mercury astronauts. As a civilian, he went overboard to free a California gray whose pectoral fin was tangled around a line attached to an oil drum buoy.

"Our area of responsibility will be from Point Conception to the Orange County line," King said. "Another group, Friends of Sea Otters, will be working north of Point Conception and a third organization, Friends of Sea Lions, will be south of Orange County. I feel that these animals need a spokesperson. They also need a friend. I'm trying to be both."

Gill nets used by commercial fishermen are the primary snares for migrating gray whales and California's resident seals and dolphins, Trimingham explained. Set at dusk, recovered at dawn, and used to catch thresher shark and swordfish, the nets stretch for one mile and descend 30 feet.

"They (whales) usually hit the nets and break free still tangled in a piece," he said. "They will travel for some time until they are exhausted and can't come up for air. Or the net will slip down and constrict the tail until they can't swim. Either way, they drown."

The danger season, he said, is fast approaching. "The southern migration is finished," Trimingham said. "In March, they'll be heading back up to the Bering Sea with their newborn calves. The youngsters are the ones getting caught. The adults usually break free."

All classicism to one side, Sea Shepherd's crews have no intention of playing Capt. Ahab to would-be Moby Dicks.

"Ideally, we will just reach over and cut the net and free it," Trimingham said. "We don't like to go in the water unless necessary."

Understandably, there is neither agreement nor dialogue between fishermen and the conservationists. Fishermen claim that gill nets are a legal technique essential to their livelihood. Conservationists argue that personal profits are a sad exchange for endangered species and the balance of nature.

Similarly, Sea Shepherd officials have limited patience for whale-watching operations, which they feel harass and panic the huge mammals.

On the other hand, Trimingham said, whale watchers "have been complaining because they've only been seeing two or more whales a day when they used to see a hundred a day."

It indicates, he said, that the whales are migrating farther offshore.

"If it is putting 'em past the gill nets," he added, "if whale watching does not become intrusive . . . then I'm not against it."

Sea Shepherd, P.O. Box 7000-S, Redondo Beach, 90277. (213) 316-8309. Marine Mammal Rescue Team: (213) 543-2888.

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