Helping Sea Lions, Alaska Department of Fish and Game (2023)

Helping Sea Lions
"Lose the Loop"

By Riley Woodford

Helping Sea Lions, Alaska Department of Fish and Game (1)

A team of marine mammal biologists works to cut a loop off a Steller sea lion in Southeast Alaska. This work was conducted under NOAA permit 932-1905-00/MA-009526

Young Steller sea lions are curious and playful, which can get them into trouble with marine debris. Loops are particularly dangerous – those hard plastic packing bands that secure bait boxes and luggage, big rubber bands used with crab pots, loops of rope and things like fan belts. Pups and juveniles toss them around and swim with them, and the loops get caught around their necks. As they grow, the band cuts more deeply and eventually can kill the animal.

Lauri Jemison is a state wildlife biologist focusing on marine mammals. Much of her work over the past two decades has been with Steller sea lions, and she’s been on dozens of trips involving captures, resighting marked animals, and documenting sea lion movements. She’s seen plenty of sea lions in trouble: tangled in netting, hooked in fishing gear, and one had a tire stuck around its neck. Close to 900 sea lions in the waters of Southeast Alaska have been documented with entanglements; about half of those have interacted with floating debris in the water and ended up with loops around their necks; the other half involved fishing gear. For more than 20 years, Jemison has worked closely with colleagues Kim Raum-Suryan and Dr. Kate Savage from the National Marine Fisheries Service (also known as NOAA Fisheries) documenting and trying to reduce Steller sea lion entanglements.

In the past, entangled animals were almost certainly doomed to a slow, agonizing death. It was almost impossible to capture a large juvenile or adult sea lion and cut the entanglement free. Sedating a marine mammal is risky; it is best done when the animal is hauled out on land – and in the past, if a darted animal went in the water as the drug was taking effect there was a high risk of drowning. But the development of new drugs, and years of fine-tuning capture techniques has made it possible today to sometimes help entangled sea lions.

Helping Sea Lions, Alaska Department of Fish and Game (2)

A Steller sea lion with a packing band cutting into its neck. Packing bands are the most common entanglement in Southeast Alaska sea lions. Photo by Kelly Hastings. This work was conducted under NOAA permit 14325.

When they consider taking action to remove an entanglement, Jemison said they prioritize animals with a human-caused, life-threatening issue. Then they evaluate the conditions and the site.

(Video) Baby seal THANKS his rescuers

“Can we safely approach the animal, dart it, and recover the animal if it goes in the water,” she said. “We need calm conditions, no strong winds, no kelp - which can look like a sea lion nose sticking up. We can’t work in an area with strong currents, for the animal’s safety and our safety.”

The new drug combination was developed about 15 years ago by researchers with the University of British Columbia, the Marine Mammal Center, and the Vancouver Aquarium, working with other veterinarians. “They were having a lot of success with the new drug combination down south, so we tried it in Southeast Alaska on three adult females, and it went really well,” she said.

She describes the sea lions as sedated, but they retain their breathing reflex. “That’s the big thing. They breath at the surface but they still dive, which is really unnerving. They’ll dive down and blow out a large volume of air, then come back up, and just sort of drift along with their head out of the water, nose pointing up, swimming slowly, sort of half sleeping but functioning.”

Helping Sea Lions, Alaska Department of Fish and Game (3)

A marine mammal biologist cuts a band off the neck of a sedated Steller sea lion on a beach in Southeast Alaska. The band has cut through the skin into the layer of white fat or blubber. This work was done under NOAA permit # 18786.

Jemison, Raum-Suryan, and Savage have conducted about a dozen entanglement responses. Sea lions are highly social and gather in large numbers on beaches and rocky outcrops known as haul outs. A team of biologists work in three groups. Usually, two teams are in skiffs offshore, ready to move in if the animal goes in the water – which happens about half the time. The on-shore group includes a veterinarian that does the darting, and sneaks up on the entangled animal from the cover of the woods, or by crawling behind boulders and beach logs.

“We try to work during a low and falling tide, because we want the target animal as far from the water’s edge as possible,” Jemison said. “We’ve had our best luck keeping an animal on shore when there’s more distance between the animal and the water. We usually dart the entangled animal from the woods or while hiding behind a boulder. Generally, when an animal is hit with the dart it’ll sit up, look around, move a few steps toward the water, and then lay down.”

That’s the best-case scenario. When that happens, the biologists are looking at a sedated (but not completely unconscious) sea lion on a boulder-strewn beach among a group of juveniles, sub-adults, and 700 to 2,000-pound adults.

Helping Sea Lions, Alaska Department of Fish and Game (4)

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A fan belt cut from a sea lion's neck.

“We slink up to the target animal very slowly and move the nearby animals away as slowly and carefully as possible,” Jemison said. “We don’t want to stampede 100 animals into the water, along with our darted animal. Once an animal is sedated, the first thing we do is cut the entanglement off, and then we take samples and measurements, and glue a satellite tag on to the fur. Lately we’ve been attaching satellite flipper tags as well. The satellite tags allow us to track the fate of the disentangled animal.”

Jemison recalled a less-than-best-case encounter when a group of sea lions spooked right after the team sedated an adult male.

“We had darted him and everything went great,” she said. “He was laying there by the water’s edge and an eagle flew over I think - something spooked the animals and they went in the water, some of them climbing over the sedated animal to get into the water. This aroused the sedated animal and he went into the water but remained close to shore and with all of the other animals milling around him it was impossible to retrieve him. Eventually the sedated animal moved off shore and we followed him for over an hour but he was not sedated enough to handle and so we couldn’t disentangle him. It was good to see that he continued to breathe, and eventually he fully recovered from the drugs.”

Another time they successfully darted a sub-adult male sea lion that had a fan belt around its neck. Then things got weird.

Helping Sea Lions, Alaska Department of Fish and Game (5)

Biologists hold a sea lion in place so a fan belt around its neck can be cut free. This is the animal threatened by an aggressive male that Lauri Jemison describes. This work was conducted under NOAA permit 932-1905-00/MA-009526

“He was on shore and Kate darted him from the woods,” Jemison said. “He moved to the water’s edge, laid down, but then got up and went into the shallows. We had two people on shore, and two or three boats in the water, all watching our sedated animal. Then a large male swam over and pushed him further from the shore and then laid on top of him, sort of smothering him, holding him under the water. We’d never seen this behavior before and we were not at a rookery where we’d expect males to be more belligerent. Kim and I were together in a skiff and we had to maneuver among about 50 animals in the water to get near the sedated male. Luckily our approach scared off the aggressive sea lion, otherwise there was a good chance the sedated animal would have drowned. Eventually we ended up cutting a fan belt from the animal’s neck.”

Lose the Loop

Marine scientists all over the world are working on this issue. In 2009, Jemison, along with Raum-Suryan, Savage, and NOAA’s Mike Williams - formed the Pinniped Entanglement Group (PEG), which has grown from those four members to more than 160 members in 18 countries.

“Our focus is prevention – lose the loop,” Jemison said. “We have subgroups addressing different issues like packing bands – how to develop a biodegradable packing band, best practices for entanglement response, we talk about advances in disentanglement work, keeping plastics out of the ocean, and reducing single-use plastics.”

(Video) Steller Sea Lions In Jeopardy

Helping Sea Lions, Alaska Department of Fish and Game (6)

A monk seal pup with an eel (hagfish) trap entrance stuck on its snout. NOAA Permit #848-1335. Photo courtesy PEG.

The group shares information and progress through biannual newsletters and video conference calls. Members include scientists who work with fur seals in Australia, gray seals and harbor seals in waters off the Eastern U.S., the Netherlands and the UK, cape fur seals in Namibia, California sea lions along the West Coast and in Mexico, monk seals in Hawaii, and Steller sea lions in Alaska.

Entanglement issues around the world are similar – floating plastics (rope, nets, bands – any type of loop is dangerous), fishing hooks and gear, fishing line, and nets – but some items stand out in certain regions. In Hawaii’s waters, a particular piece of fishing gear is a problem – round, conical plastic rings used in traps to catch hagfish and eels. These “eel trap entrances” are caught on the snouts of monk seal pups and even the rostrum of a bottlenose dolphin.

On the central Oregon Coast, heavy-duty black rubber bands were identified in a study (co-authored by Kim Raum-Suryan) as the most common sea lion entanglement material, observed in almost two-thirds of all entanglements and encircling the neck. These are big diameter, inch-wide loops (sometimes cut from tire innertubes) commonly used in commercial Dungeness crab pots. Those ubiquitous plastic packing bands were also a big problem, basically the other third of the entanglements. They are the most common neck entanglement found on Steller sea lions in Southeast Alaska, northern British Columbia and northern Washington; they rank high on lists of marine mammal entanglements around the world.

Ocean Guardians

Helping Sea Lions, Alaska Department of Fish and Game (7)

Students at Dimond High School in Anchorage sorting trash collected during a beach cleanup. Photo courtesy Kim Raum-Suryan.

Kim Raum-Suryan serves as the current coordinator of the Pinniped Entanglement Group. She’s a biologist and a marine mammal specialist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, based in Juneau, and has worked with Steller sea lions and other marine mammals for decades. She also serves as the Alaska Regional Coordinator of NOAA’s Ocean Guardian School Program, which is managed by NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

The program started in the 2009-2010 school year in California, and Raum-Suryan learned about it a few years later from a documentary called "Plastic is Forever" made by a then 12-year old boy named Dylan D'Haeze. She asked around and said no one at the Alaska regional office was familiar with the Ocean Guardian Program.

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“I contacted the director, Seaberry Nachbar, and she was really excited to get the program to Alaska,” she said. “My boss at the time, Jon Kurland, said that we could pilot it with two schools, even though it was completely outside the scope of my regular job duties, and here we are almost five years later with six schools and many more schools interested in the program. It is an amazing program and the kids are such an inspiration.”

Helping Sea Lions, Alaska Department of Fish and Game (8)

A waste audit and assembly with the kids participating in the Ocean Guardian Program at Auke Bay Elementary School in Juneau. Thunder Mountain High School and Sayeik Gastineau in Juneau were the very first two schools to be official Ocean Guardian Schools in Alaska. Photo courtesy Kim Raum-Suryan.

Four of the Ocean Guardian schools are in Juneau, one is in Anchorage, and one is in Ketchikan. Students at Dimond High School in Anchorage started a school-wide recycling program and cleaned up hundreds of pounds of trash from the community and from a coastal area near Whittier.

Raum-Suryan said schools pick one or more of five project pathways, collecting measurable data so they know where they started and how much progress has been made during the year (waste audits are a big hit), they do outreach, write letters, clean up the community and beaches, compost, recycle, and much more.

Applications for the program open April 1st, and funding is available for projects.

“The teachers are the champions for taking this on when they already have so much to do, but they seem to love it,” she said.

More on the Pinneped Entanglement Group

More on Marine Mammal Entanglements

Video: Entanglement of Steller Sea Lions in Marine Debris: Identifying Causes and Finding Solutions

(Video) Saving Canada's Stellar Sea Lion From Extinction | The Blue Realm | Real Wild

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What is being done to help sea lions? ›

Cleaning up the environment is a huge part of the conservation efforts for Sea Lions. By keeping the water clean they are less likely to become ill. They will also be able to find adequate food sources in the water to survive on. Protecting the land where they bask in the sun and where they mate is also important.

What is the nickname of Sealion? ›

The sea lion is known as the "angel of the sea" because their front flippers look like angels wings while they are swimming and sometimes when they are sleeping. The trained seals seen in water parks and circuses are usually California sea lions.

Who is allowed to hunt seals in Alaska? ›

All marine mammals, including seals and sea lions, are federally protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). It is illegal to shoot seals or sea lions unless you are an Alaska Native and the take is for subsistence purposes (food or handicraft) and is not accomplished in a wasteful manner.

Why do sea lions play fight? ›

California sea lions are very social on land and in the water, but during the breeding season the males aggressively defend their territories and females fight other females to protect their pups.

Why is it important to save sea lions? ›

Sea lions are regarded as a 'keystone species'. Keystone species are incredibly important because they maintain balance in nature. Without them, the whole ecosystem around them is thrown completely out of balance or fails to survive at all.

How can people help seals? ›

Reduce, reuse, recycle. Keep seals wild—give them space. When fishing, pull your fishing line in until the seal leaves the area. Keep cats exclusively indoors.

What is the name of a female seal? ›

A large group of seals during breeding is called a harem. Adult males are called bulls and females are called cows, while a young seal is a pup.

What is a group sea lions called? ›

Sea lions congregate in gregarious groups called herds or rafts that can reach upwards of 1,500 individuals. It's common for scores of them to haul out together and loll about in the sand, comprising an amorphous pile in the noonday sun.

What is a pod of sea lions called? ›

On land, a group of seal lions is called a colony. In water, a group of sea lions is called a raft. During the breeding season, a group of sea lions is called a rookery. When several females are in one male's territory, the group of sea lions is called a harem.

Can you shoot in the woods in Alaska? ›

Firearms and other weapons - No person may use or discharge a weapon in a state park, except as otherwise provided in AS 41.21 or 11 AAC 20.

How much Alaskan do you have to be to hunt seals? ›

However, the Marine Mammal Protection Act uses a different definition, requiring a person to be "¼ degree or more Alaska Indian, Eskimo and/or Aleut blood or who was originally enrolled as an Alaska Native under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act" in order to harvest animals including seal, otter, walrus and whale ...

Do Native Alaskans need a fishing license? ›

Yes, fishing licenses are required to fish in Alaska. Different licenses are available for residents, non-residents, and military. Senior licenses for ages 60+ are available for residents only.

Why do sea lions cry? ›

There are many stories out there about seeing Sea Lions crying. What is actually taking place is that they have tear ducts to help remove the salt water from their eyes. They do have decent eyesight but it is believed that they are nearsighted.

Why do sea lions slap the water? ›

Under water, males vocalize as part of a mating display. In addition to vocal communication, harbor seals communicate visually by slapping the water with their bodies or pectoral flippers to show aggression. Males may also use this maneuver during courtship.

What are 3 things we can do to protect sea lions? ›

Help the Sea Lions from Home
  • Eat fish that are recommended by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program.
  • Reduce the toxins you use on your lawn and garden, as these chemicals end up in our waterways.
  • Bring your own reusable canvas or cotton shopping bags to carry your purchases.

What is the biggest threat to sea lions? ›

They are vulnerable to the effects of climate change on ocean currents, which impacts their fish prey abundance. They are also victims of bycatch in fisheries.

What is the main threat to sea lions? ›

The Australian Sea-lion (Neophoca cinerea) has a fragmented distribution along the coast and offshore islands of South Australia and southern Western Australia. The main threats to the Australian Sea-lion are mortality due to interactions with fisheries, aquaculture and entanglement with marine debris.

Who help to prepare the seals? ›

In Harappan civilization there were scribes. Scribes were people who knew how to write, who helped prepare the seals, and perhaps wrote on other materials that have not survived.

What are 3 interesting facts about seals? ›

Seals can dive to great depths underwater and stay there for up to two hours. Seals use clicking or trilling noises to communicate. Seals eat fish, birds, and shellfish. Male seals are called bulls; females are called cows; and babies are called pups.

How do humans affect seals? ›

The largest threats to seals are humans and the byproducts of our activity. Historically, hunters targeted seals for their fur and hunted several species to extinction. Today, seal hunting is much better regulated to help preserve seal populations.

Can a female be a Navy seal? ›

To date, 13 women have been chosen for Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewman training, with one completing the course and becoming the Navy's first female Naval Special Warfare operator -- the boat operators who transport Navy SEALs and conduct their own classified missions -- in July 2021.

Do Navy SEALs have girls? ›

On top of that, the first female special tactics officer graduated from the Air Force in 2022. Despite this attempt to have more women, there still aren't any female Navy SEALs. Jason Birch, a Navy Captain, explained how the Navy has made efforts to increase female special warfare candidates.

What are white baby seals called? ›

What is a whitecoat? Newborn harp seals have soft, white fur and are called whitecoats. Young seals of any species are also referred to as pups. Harp seals are pinnipeds, of which there are 33 species in the world, 18 of which belong to the Phocidae family (true seals).

What eats a sea lion? ›

Sea lions

Why is a sea lion called a lion? ›

Adult male Steller sea lions have a bulky build and a very thick neck with longer fur that resembles a lion's mane, hence the name "sea lion."

Do sea lions have friends? ›

California sea lions are extremely gregarious and form large aggregations when on land. Individuals lie close to each other, or even on top of each other. Large male California sea lions exhibit size-related dominance over smaller animals. When in the water, California sea lions often form small groups.

What is bigger than a sea lion? ›

Walrus are the largest pinniped. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Joel Garlich-Miller. Seals, sea lions, and walruses belong to a group of marine mammals called pinnipeds, referring to their flippered feet.

How smart is a sea lion? ›

Similar to seals, sea lions have been shown to have excellent short-term memory, but also long-term memory of up to 3-4 months. Studies have shown that sea lions trained to perform tricks in captivity can remember these same tricks even after several months of not performing that specific action or command.

How long can a sea lion be out of water? ›

What is this? To begin, California sea lions are mammals, so they breathe in oxygen from the air like humans, dolphins, and whales. Sea lions can dive and hold their breath anywhere from 8-20 minutes and usually return to land to rest.

Can you carry a pistol while hunting in Alaska? ›

Firearms in Alaska

Rifles, shotguns and handguns are legal for hunting in Alaska. Rimfire cartridges generally maybe used only for small game. See the Alaska Hunting Regulations for details. Alaska's laws do not prohibit anyone 21 or older who may legally possess a firearm from carrying it concealed.

Can you carry a gun while hiking in Alaska? ›

Is open carry permitted in Alaska? Yes, without a permit for any person who is legally allowed to possess a firearm.

Can I shoot someone on my property in Alaska? ›

They vary by state. In 2013, the Alaska Legislature passed a “stand your ground” law that said a person has no duty to retreat from any place he or she has a right to be before using deadly force.

How much is a grizzly bear license in Alaska? ›


Can you shoot a bear in a den in Alaska? ›

Under state subsistence regulations, as a customary and traditional use, yes. The harvest of bears at dens is also allowed in some federal areas under federal regulations.

How many bear can you shoot in Alaska? ›

Up to two brown bears may be harvested per year. There are no size requirements; however no cubs or sows with cubs may be taken. Brown bears are considered “cubs” in their first and second years of life.

What is the penalty for fishing without a license in Alaska? ›

If you are caught fishing without the correct license, you will be fined immediately and charged between $100 and $150.

Do senior citizens need a fishing license in Alaska? ›

Alaska residents who are 60 years of age or older and meet the Department of Fish and Game's residency definition are eligible for a permanent identification card in order to hunt, sport fish, or trap for free.

Can you bring fish home from Alaska? ›

Shipping fish from Alaska requires having a plan in place to ensure you have all of the materials required and a good understanding of the amount of time that will be required to get your fish to your destination. The average time a person will be traveling to their destination will range from 10- to 24 hours.

What can be done to save Steller sea lions? ›

Efforts to conserve Steller sea lions include:
  • Implementation and enforcement of special prohibitions aimed at protecting the Steller sea lions and their rookeries.
  • Protection against unauthorized take under the ESA and MMPA.

What is being done to protect Australian sea lions? ›

The strategy includes area closures around every breeding colony of Australian sea lions in South Australia to prevent gillnets being set near these colonies.

What is happening to sea lions? ›

Climate change has wrought devastating consequences on these beautiful animals. They have been forced to change their feeding areas and behaviors, and their reproductive patterns now bear little resemblance to what they once were.

Will a sea lion save a human? ›

Marine animals (dolphins, sea lions) and other creatures have helped save humans and other animals from dangerous situations all over the world.

How can we save the lion population? ›

Reintroducing Lions to Historic Habitats

Considering that lion populations in protected areas have grown while those outside of well protected areas have plummeted, increasing the population range of these majestic creatures and reintroducing them to well-protected habitats is critical to their long-term conservation.


1. Investigating Steller Sea Lion Populations
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