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Marine Mammals

Since there is such an abundance of food in the sea, it is understandable that some of the efficient, highly adaptable, warm-blooded mammals that evolved on land should have returned to the sea. Those that did have flourished. Within about 50 million years -- no time at all, geologically speaking -- one of the four kinds of mammals that has returned to a marine environment has developed into the largest of all animal forms, the whale. A second kind, the seal, has produced what is probably the greatest population of large carnivorous mammals on Earth.

This suggests that these "top dogs" of the ocean are prospering and multiplying. However, such has not been the case, at least not for the last 150 years. Trouble has closed in on these mammals in the form of equally warm-blooded and even more efficient and adaptable predators, humans. At sea, as on land, humans have now positioned themselves on the top of the whole great pyramid of life, and they have caused serious problems for the mammals of the sea. There is a simple reason for this. Marine mammals have the misfortune to be swimming aggregates of commodities that humans want: fur, oil and meat. Even so, they might not be so vulnerable to human depredation if they did not, like humans, reproduce so slowly. Every year humans take more than 50 million tons of fish from the oceans without critically depleting the population of any species. But the slow-breeding mammals of the sea have been all but wiped out by humans seeking to satisfy their wants and whims.