For endangered species day 2021 we are taking a look at an endangered pinniped, the Steller Sea Lion!
The Stunning Steller Sea Lions
Steller sea lions are an endangered species of eared seals that live along the coast of the North Pacific Ocean. They are the largest species of the eared seal family with the males weighing up to 2,500 lbs and the females 800 lbs. They live for around 20 - 30 years and can be seen in large groups resting on land or in smaller groups out at sea.
Unlike their relatives, the Californian sea lions who have an iconic bark, the steller sea lions have an impressive low frequency roar. They have light blonde/ reddish brown coats and long light coloured whiskers which they use to sense their prey underwater. They have a wide range of prey and feed primarily at night on fish such as salmon, rock sole and Pacific cod as well as squid and octopus. They depend on predictable prey in abundance to meet their feeding requirements.
The species is divided into two populations, eastern and western. In 1990 they were first listed under the endangered species act after widespread decline. Later the eastern population began to bounce back so they were listed as threatened whilst the western sea lions were still endangered. In more recent times the eastern steller sea lions have recovered and are no long listed which is great news, however the western population remains endangered.
Threats To Steller Sea Lions
As with many marine species steller sea lions are at greatest risk from human activities. Impacts from overfishing, entanglement, climate change, algae blooms, pollution, ship strikes and even illegal shooting/ feeding.
The initial decline to steller sea lions happened in the 1980s and as we mentioned earlier, scientists were unable to pinpoint the cause of the decline. Some theorised that it was related to a decline in their food source, as it was found that 50% - 80% of trawl fish catches in the US were caught in sea lion habitat and were largely sea lions prey. In an effort to address this issue a no trawl buffer zone was established of 10/ 20 nautical miles around some of the steller sea lions rookeries. There were also restrictions placed on certain fish stocks to protect the species for the benefit of steller sea lions.
At one time the steller sea lions were hunted commercially, as were many marine wildlife, but this ended in the 1970s. However in Canada some were still killed under the predator control permits, and subsistence (maintenance) hunting kills around 400 steller sea lions in Alaska each year.
Entanglement in fishing gear is another concern for these sea lions, killing on average 30 sea lions each year with countless others being injured by it.
Climate change is another threat to the steller sea lion, as the sea temperatures rise there are shifts in the currents and can alter patterns and habits of marine life.
Sea traffic, such as ships and boats also have an impact on steller sea lions. Not only are the sea lions at risk of collision from high speed/ large vessels but cargo ships and oil tankers also pose their own threats. One example is in May 1999 a fishing boat ran aground in steller sea lion territory and a large volume of diesel fuel leaked out, there have been a number of other oil spills in their territory and it is still unknown if it had an impact on the population but it has certainly impacted their health.
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1] NOAA - Steller Sea Lion
2] Marine Bio - Steller Sea Lions