The SeaDoc Society joined forced with the Vancouver Aquarium marine mammal rescue staff and officers from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) last week at Race Rocks Ecological Reserve, a marine protected area near Sooke, on Vancouver Island. The teams were responding to reports of at least one Steller sea lion and one California sea lion seen entangled in plastic.
On arrival by DFO boat to Race Rocks, and with the help of the Race Rocks Eco-Guardians, teams were able to spot a male Steller sea lion, weighing more than 1,000 pounds, with a plastic packing band wrapped tightly around its neck. The depth and severity of the wound indicated that the plastic had been there for some time.
Vancouver Aquarium head veterinarian Martin Haulena’s strategy is to sedate the sea lion from a distance, using an air-powered dart containing immobilization agents. Over the past two decades, Haulena – a world leader in this approach along with SeaDoc Science Director Joe Gaydos – has helped develop a precise drug combination to ensure that the sea lion can be safely freed, without harming itself or others.
Race Rocks can present some logistical challenges with terrain and strong currents, and in this case, the animal was spotted in an area that was difficult to access. It took several hours of jockeying positions, on land and from the water, before Haulena was able to successfully dart the sea lion. With the help of the Eco-Guardians positioned in the lighthouse and acting as “eyes in the sky,” the team was able to spot it in some kelp beds and successfully remove the plastic debris.
It takes close to 12 minutes for a sea lion to become sufficiently immobilized for disentanglement. The animal in question entered the water after being darted, a common response, said Lindsaye Akhurst, manager of the Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre. Once the animal was located in the water, the team discovered that while the top of the plastic band was still slightly mobile, the bottom, or ventral portion, had cut into the animal’s neck approximately 2 inches.
Team members also tagged the sea lion’s flippers, so if there are further reports about it – which often occurs because scarring from the entanglement is mistaken for the entanglement itself – rescuers will be able to identify this particular animal.
In between darting attempts, the team had to pause rescue efforts due to the presence of Southern resident killer whales from J and K pods, who rather inconveniently happened by, Akhurst said, laughing.
In recent years, B.C. surveys have documented hundreds of entangled sea lions, with some of the worst plastic offenders being ghost gear, including nets and ropes, and discarded trash such as the plastic packing bands used in packaging and shipping, which ensnare animals. Not only are these plastic items uncomfortable for the marine mammals, says Akhurst, but the already massive sea lions continue to grow, while the plastic around them does not. Such entanglements can result in death.
Vancouver Aquarium and Marine Mammal Rescue Centre staff have had to conduct dozens of such rescue efforts since 2013, and to date have rescued over 20 entangled sea lions.
Ocean Wise is working with the Fisheries and Oceans Canada on a stronger disentanglement program that specifically targets pinnipeds, said Akhurst. In late fall, a multi-day outing is planned that will focus on this problem on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
If you see a sea lion or any other marine mammal that you believe is in distress: stay back, keep people and pets away, call the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre at 604-258-SEAL (7325), or the DFO hotline at 1-800-465-4336.
About Steller sea lions
The Steller sea lion is protected in Canada as a species of special concern under the federal Species at Risk Act. It faces threats in the wild including decreased availability of prey, pollution, predation, and entanglement. The species declined through many years of being hunted, but since 1970 it has been protected in Canada under the federal Fisheries Act, which prohibits commercial hunting of the Steller sea lion.