Steller Sea Lions are at risk from plastic debris entanglement.

Photo: Tom Hartley, flickr creative commons.

Photo: Tom Hartley, flickr creative commons.

Summer is here, and people across Canada are itching to get outside and into the water. Steller Sea Lions are also enjoying this time of year, lounging about and breeding on isolated rocks. Unfortunately, many of these mammals won’t live to see the end of summer due to the entanglement of plastic bands and other debris around their necks.

The coastal islands of British Columbia have many important breeding sites for Steller Sea Lions (Eumetopias jubatus), including the Scott Islands, Kerouard Islands and the Virgin Rocks.

Steller Sea Lions are the world’s largest sea lions and can live up to 30 years. They can sometimes be mistaken for seals, however but these creatures are much larger than seals and have a yellowish-tan colour once they mature. They also have outer ear flaps and a bony structure allowing them to walk on all flippers and climb with ease.

With so many sea lions exposed on rookeries, it is easy to see how many are suffering due to entanglement, and it is not a pretty sight. Right now, there are hundreds of animals suffering a slow and painful death due to humans discarding trash improperly.

Once the debris is around their necks, their hair prevents it from coming off. It starts to dig in as they grow and begins to cut through the skin like a saw. Plastic packing bands account for about 38 per cent of the strangling debris. 10 per cent of the debris is commercial and sport fishing gear and crab trap rubber bands make up another five per cent. The debris is usually embedded so deeply into the animal that it is completely unrecognizable.

Entangled Steller Sea Lions are at risk of drowning before they can be released or escape. Thankfully, there are rescue efforts to help these majestic beasts in their hour of need. It’s estimates that each disentanglement takes about $2,000 worth of  boats, personnel, drugs and time. It quickly adds up to an expensive bill to save animals from the debris humans has carelessly tossed into our oceans.

Although these efforts are quite effective, there is a much better way to ensure that these animals aren’t suffering. Discarding trash properly can save the lives of hundreds of sea creatures. Loosen and cut packaging materials such as rope, wire and six-pack plastic rings before tossing them into the garbage.

The Earth’s population of the North Pacific dwelling Steller is divided into Eastern and Western groups. They can be found all the way from California to the Arctic and along the coasts of Asia. Canadian sea lions are part of the Eastern population.

Due to the massive hunting and killing of sea lions by humans, Canada decided to protect these animals from commercial hunting under the federal Fisheries Act of 1970. Since then, there has been a steady annual increase of pups (4.6 %) and non-pups (3.7%).

This increase in sea-lion population is wonderful news, but there are still many other elements that threaten their livelihood. Oil spills, pollution and environmental contaminants threaten their habitat. This can force sea lions to relocate from their vital dwellings, decreasing their population size.

If you see a marine mammal that is in distress in British Columbia, contact the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre at 604-258-SEAL(7325).