Remember when save the seals was about stopping the bloody slaughter of fluffy white Harp Seal pups? Today that call is a lot closer to home.
South Coast and Otago residents familiar with plump, playful animals on their beaches generally see the appearance of NZ Sea Lions as signs of a species in recovery.
It would be more accurately viewed as a last raised flipper from a species crying out for rescue.
In 2014 the IUCN Red List upgraded NZ Sea Lions from vulnerable to critically endangered. It forecast NZ Sea Lions would be extinct within 50 years, and functionally extinct by 2035 – thirteen years from now.
And that horrible estimate may have been generous.
The bulk of the NZ Sea Lions live on sub-Antarctic islands, where the population of around 10,000 animals was stable until it found itself surrounded by a new commercial fishery about 30 years ago. It’s been dropping ever since.
The Auckland Islands are a National Nature Reserve with World Heritage status. It’s been marine mammal sanctuary since 1993 also a marine reserve since 2003. A marine reserve covers 39% the Campbell Island seas 270km SE.
These measures have not protected NZ sea lions. Field Reports from the 2019/20 season make particularly grim reading.
On the Auckland Islands, the standard six week research season was whittled to ten days. Researchers counted 1,747 pups born – a 42% reduction on the 3,021 counted in 1997/98 – the period too short to accurately consider mortality.
The team allocated to Campbell Island recorded 595 pups born. During the two weeks they were on the island 81 percent of the pups died. A nadir of a season with the lowest birth rate and the highest mortality ever recorded for Campbell Island.
We don’t know what happened in the next summer because all field research was cancelled by COVID-19. The report of the fleeting five day visit in January 2022 by a foreshortened new team, while cheerful in tone, is scientifically incomparable to the earlier reports.
That summer 22 NZ Sea Lion pups were born on mainland New Zealand, from Waipapa Point to Otago Peninsula, with a further 62 pups counted on Stewart Island. These animals make up a very tiny portion of a dwindling population.
There are no NZ Sea Lions in zoos anywhere in the world – no captive breeding programs. All we have between these animals and extinction are the wild ones on our doorstep.
Write Answers has been proudly advocating for New Zealand’s native NZ Sea Lions (Pakeke), Leopard Seals (Rapoka) and NZ Fur Seals (Kekeno) on a pro-bono basis since 2005. How can you help? Invite us to talk to your Southland group about our favourite species (it’s free and we’re entertaining) or check out our friends at NZ Sea Lion Trust, Leopard Seals, and Sea Society.
Or, buy our book, it’s Just Cause and Effect.
Because, to paraphrase the eternal wisdom of Terry’s Grandmother, the time to save something is when you have it.