Sea Lion Research on the Subantarctic Auckland Islands

Our senior technical officer David Donnelly recently joined a team of five scientists on a voyage to New Zealand’s subantarctic Auckland Islands. The purpose of this field excursion was to continue the Department of Conservation’s long term monitoring of the vulnerable New Zealand sea lion (Phocartos hookeri). The distribution of this species is limited the New Zealand mainland and its subantarctic islands. They are one of the rarest species of sea lion in the world and arguably the most threatened due to a significant decline in numbers and restricted breeding range. This most recent monitoring period ran for seven weeks, which coincided with the peak in the pupping season. The primary purposes of the program are:

·         to evaluate population recovery;

·         monitor pup survival rates; and

·         provide an overall population estimate for the region.

A mark/recapture method was used to achieve the objectives of the program and included capping, flipper tagging and micro chipping of pups as well as using visual resights of older tagged and/or micro chipped individual sea lions. In all, there were three separate study sites which included Figure of Eight Island to south as well as Dundas and Enderby Island to the north. The team of scientists were based at Sandy Bay on Enderby Island in very humble cabin accommodation complete with diesel stove, outdoor meat safe and a pit toilet. The daily routine for the science team involved early rise for breakfast, followed by a visit to the Sandy Bay sea lion colony to record tag resights and monitor the health of the new pups. Afternoons generally involved data entry and household chores with an occasional second visit to the colony. A twice a week walk around the entire island to look for and record animals outside of the main colony was also part of the busy schedule. As well as sea lion monitoring, the science team were also involved in the deployment and retrieval of TDRs (Time Depth Recorders) on yellow-eyed penguins and monitoring the nests of the local royal albatross population. The Auckland Islands is an incredibly beautiful oasis in what is otherwise, a very inhospitable area of the Southern Ocean.       

Data collected from this field season will be added to the Department of Conservation’s sea lion database which will assist in the future management of this rare species of pinniped.

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