A Science Voice from New Zealand

Otago’s Sea Lions need space!


Sea Lion pup (Auckland Islands) Photo: Bill Morris

The recent instance of a New Zealand sea lion being shot on the Otago Peninsula highlights the ignorance surrounding the sea lions that occur along our coast. The person who fired the .22 bullet that festered inside this animal for days or weeks before killing it may never be caught – if they are, they could face up to six months jail and fines of up to 250,000. Those who are aware of the precarious situation these sea lions face would probably argue a distinctly more medieval form of punishment might better suit the crime.

Anyone who’s spent a bit of time exploring the beaches around Dunedin will have encountered sea lions. They are one of the most interesting and exciting forms of wildlife in our region, yet many people know very little about them. A lot of people don’t realize that these animals once bred in great numbers around our coasts; that the breeding colonies in the sub-Antarctic Islands are the probably the fringe remnants of the original New Zealand sea lion population and that the species is in peril of extinction.

Research has shown that the sea lions around Otago spend significantly less time foraging for food and travel far shorter distances than their counterparts in the Auckland Islands. This may be because the coasts of Otago are central to their historical natural habitat. Their lives are easier here and that is why they are, slowly, returning to breed on the Otago Peninsula.

However, the last few years have seen a number of instances of sea lions in the region being harassed, beaten and attacked by dogs. People seem incapable of leaving space for wildlife and a few actively seek to trouble, injure or even kill them.

Students from the Centre for Science Communication regularly film sea lions as part of their studies and a few have made them the subject of their final film projects. One of my favourites from recent years is Kat Baulu and Alistair Jamieson’s Whetu Rere – The Sea Lion and the Comet. 

A few weeks ago my girlfriend filmed a young female sea lion scratching its back on a park bench at Aramoana. By identifying the tag number we found out that the animal’s name is Carleigh, that she was born in January 2011 and that her mother is called Teyah (Thanks Katie Wise). A visit to the New Zealand Sea Lion Trust’s website shows Carleigh’s family tree – it highlights just how small the Otago population is and therefore how vulnerable. We need to do everything we can to make a space for them here alongside our city.

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