Japan’s Hokkaido fears attacks from ‘starving’ bears as warm waters delay arrival of salmon

The brown bears of a Unesco World Heritage site in Japan’s northern Hokkaido prefecture are at risk of starvation this winter, as the salmon they rely on to fatten up for hibernation have failed to return to the region’s rivers.

There are as many as 500 brown bears on the 1,230 sq km Shiretoko Peninsula, but local authorities and tour operators have reported seeing an unusual number of thin bears at a time of the year when they need to gain weight to survive next winter.

Local farmers also report seeing more bears in their fields, and there are concerns that the animals will soon start to venture into urban areas in search of food and will inevitably encounter local residents.

There have not been enough acorns and seeds that bears tend to eat in the autumn months and now the salmon have not returned

Daisuke Imura, environment ministry official

“This year, the bears have not been able to find sufficient food,” said Daisuke Imura, an official of the Ministry of the Environment based at the Shiretoko World Heritage Centre in the town of Utoro.

“There have not been enough acorns and seeds that the bears tend to eat in the autumn months and now the salmon have not returned,” he said.

“Ocean temperatures have been far higher than normal and the salmon that usually travel here from the Russian Far East have not come – and they are an important part of the bears’ diet.”

Bears typically prowl the mouths of Shiretoko’s rivers and feast on the fish between mid-August and early October. However, this year due to a lack of sustenance, there are reports of bears swimming out to sea in search of fish and others feeding on kelp that has washed up on beaches.

A shoal of salmon jam in the rivermouth along the Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido, Japan. Photo: AP

Imura said the brown bear population was hit hard in 2015 because of a poor acorn crop, but he said this year the situation was likely to be worse because of the shortage of fish.

“We saw many carcasses that year,” he said.

“We have not seen that yet because it is too early, but we are seeing bears that are clearly starving.”

As many as 80 per cent of cubs born this year have already died, according to Masami Yamanaka, a researcher at the Shiretoko Nature Foundation, who was quoted by the Asahi newspaper.

And with their traditional food sources drying up, Imura said it is very possible that hungry bears would start to seek out food in areas beyond the national park, attracted by waste food in local villages and towns.
There have already been a number of fatal bear attacks on residents of rural parts of Japan this year and with winter fast approaching, Imura said people need to be careful if they should come across a bear.

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