Thursday, June 26, 2014

Stellar Sea Lion Disentanglement & Rescue

I'm sure you're aware of the risk of plastic garbage like six-pack rings getting caught around the necks of birds & fish. Did you know that larger marine mammals like sea lions are at risk of entanglement from plastic garbage too? Fishing nets & plastic packing straps like you'd see around boxes or stacks of newsprint get caught around the necks of animals, eventually cutting into flesh & causing infection.

Until very recently, disentangling these poor animals was all but impossible. The veterinary staff at the Vancouver Aquarium have developed a technique & discovered a combination of anaesthetic drugs that effectively sedate animals safely so they can be freed from the garbage that was slowly killing them. Watching video footage of these rescues brings tears to my eyes, I can't imagine the incredible pain the animals must be in, given the horrible wounds they suffer from marine debris entanglement.

I've written about the sea lion disentanglements before, but it was only this week that I learned the details of how Dr. Haulena & the other Aquarium staff have learned how to carry out these amazing rescues. Saving these animals in the wild could not have happened without the help of one particular Vancouver Aquarium resident. Tag was a Steller sea lion who lived at the aquarium for nearly all his 15 years. He was part of the ongoing research into why more than 80% of the Steller sea lion population has disappeared since 1980. Tag developed cancer in his old age & the veterinary team there performed surgery as well as administering chemotherapy. These interventions required anaesthesia multiple times & it was through this experience with Tag that Dr. Martin Haulena & his team developed a protocol for safely sedating these massive beasts.

It's not just Tag that has contributed to important research. All the captive marine mammals at the Vancouver Aquarium are providing extremely valuable opportunities for us to learn how to conserve wild populations. The researchers at the aquarium are looking at things like how dolphins use echolocation so we can hopefully prevent their future entanglements in fishing nets; collecting data on Steller sea lions diving & feeding habits in the wild, in an effort to determine why their populations are crashing; developing rescue techniques for animals we weren't able to rehabilitate & release before, like harbour porpoises; & much more. You can find a more exhaustive list of research areas at the Vancouver Aquarium here.

If you're interested in more details about the sea lion disentanglement excursions & the protocol for sedating them in the wild, the Vancouver Aquarium recently posted a video of a presentation by Dr. Haulena & marine mammal researcher Wendy Szaniszlo. Rescuing Sea Lions - Notes from the Field is what inspired me to write this post. 

You can also read more about Steller sea lions on the Aquafacts Page.

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