Never Forget the Steller’s Sea Cow
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article first appeared on the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation website in 2018. We are reprinting it now because the issues it raises are still timely. New research has expanded our understanding of the ecological importance of the Steller’s sea cow and how its extinction continues to impact Pacific coastal ecosystems to this day. Likewise, at a time when the dugong has just been added to the IUCN red list, Doug’s piece reminds us that the dugong is the closest living relative of the Steller’s sea cow and warrants our attention now to prevent another tragic extinction from occurring.
As we approach the end of 2018, we can say goodbye to a sad anniversary — 250 years ago the Steller’s sea cow was driven to extinction. This amazing creature was a relative of the manatees that still swim in coastal areas of Florida and other parts of the world, peacefully munching on sea grasses. Yet whereas manatees are typically about 9 feet long, the gigantic Steller’s sea cow could grow to 30 feet in length. It was a manatee the size of a whale!
Unlike its living relatives that inhabit warm waters, the Steller’s sea cow grazed in kelp forests around remote islands in the frigid northern Pacific Ocean. This remarkable creature was first identified to Europeans in 1741 by naturalist Georg Steller. Steller served on the Bering Expedition to explore the North Pacific. The expedition shipwrecked in the Commander Islands, and upon discovering the sea cows, the crew began killing them for food.
The hunt was made easier because, as Steller noted, the sea cows had “an uncommon love for one another, which even extended so far that, when one of them was hooked, all the others were intent upon saving him,” making the rest of the group ready targets. Steller also observed that when a female was killed, her mate made daily visits to the beach where her body remained, “as if he would inform himself about her condition.”
The sea cow slaughter was subsequently repeated by a stream of commercial fur hunters who came into the region in pursuit of sea otters, seals, and sea lions. By 1768, the Steller’s sea cow was extinct—only 27 years after it had been discovered by Europeans.
It is stunning to think that such a massive, extraordinary animal existed on Earth as recently as 250 years ago. Unlike the mammoths and other giant land mammals that disappeared thousands of years in the past, Steller’s sea cows still dove through kelp forests like living submarines at the same time George Washington was alive. Yet now they are gone forever, pushed into extinction by human actions.
Reflecting on this loss two centuries later, biologist Victor Scheffer commented, “The sea cow is gone and Earth is a lonelier place…The wisdom, goodness, and greatness of Man will be measured not wholly by technical power over the wild things of Earth but also by his moral strength in letting them be.”
We should never forget the Steller’s sea cow and we can honor its memory by working to prevent future extinctions.
Its closest living relative is a much smaller sea cow called a dugong, which is found in the western Pacific and Indian Oceans. One key population of dugongs around the Japanese island Okinawa is critically imperiled, with some of the most important remaining habitat at risk of being destroyed by a US Marine airbase. The dugongs have long been revered by native Okinawans, and a coalition of US and Japanese environmental groups is currently in US court with a lawsuit seeking to stop the base from dumping tons of dirt over the sea grass beds that are a crucial food source for the dugong. Peter Galvin of the Center for Biological Diversity recently stated, “This base is an environmental atrocity. Wiping out these gentle, culturally important animals would forever stain America’s international reputation.”
At the same time, another Pacific Ocean marine mammal now teeters on the edge of extinction—the vaquita. Whereas the Steller’s sea cow was the largest member of the manatee family, the vaquita is the smallest porpoise in the world. It lives in the Gulf of California and is threatened by entanglement in gillnets from illegal fishing activity. The most recent official report states that there are fewer than 30 vaquitas left in the wild, while some groups estimate that fewer than 15 actually remain! In response to this crisis, Leonardo DiCaprio met with Mexico’s President to sign a Memorandum of Understanding on steps by the Mexican government, NGOs, and local communities to protect the vaquita and its habitat. Meanwhile, Mexican and US environmental groups, with support from the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, have been using a variety of tactics to save the vaquita from extinction.
With the urgent threats to the vaquita, Okinawa dugong, and many other imperiled species, there is much to do. As we reach the end of the sestercentennial of the Steller’s sea cow extinction, together we can resolve to make 2019 a year for bold action to protect life on Earth so that this sort of tragic loss never happens again.
Douglas Bevington is forest program director for Environment Now, a grantmaking foundation that supports water and forest protection in California. He also serves on the board of directors of the Fund for Wild Nature, which supports grassroots action in defense of wildlife and wildlands in North America. He is the author of The Rebirth of Environmentalism: Grassroots Activism from the Spotted Owl to the Polar Bear (Island Press, 2009).