As a veterinarian who cares deeply about the conservation and welfare of marine mammals, it may seem strange to find Dr. Martin Haulena of the Vancouver Aquarium aiming the crosshairs of a gun at a sea lion and pulling the trigger.

The gun was loaded with tranquilizing darts, and Dr. Haulena’s mission was to save helpless marine mammals who would have otherwise suffered painful deaths.

Travelling by boat along the western coast of Vancouver Island, Dr. Haulena and his team searched for helpless sea lions accidentally ensnared by marine debris. The team noticed a colony of sea lions, two of which had fish-packing straps perilously wrapped around their necks. Dr. Haulena carefully targeted and immobilized two of them with tranquilizer darts.

A weak California sea lion with marine debris around his neck. Photo credit Vancouver Aquarium.

A weak California sea lion with marine debris around his neck. Photo credit: Vancouver Aquarium.

The veterinary team carefully removed the fish-packing strap from the neck of first sea lion. Dr. Haulena then made incisions in the strap that was slowly choking the second sea lion, but was unable to entirely remove the debris because the sea lion’s skin had grown over it.

Led by the Vancouver Aquarium and marine mammal consulting biologist Wendy Szaniszlo, the disentanglement of these two lions is part of a groundbreaking project to free sea lions from marine debris and fishing gear in the Barkley-Clayoquot region. With assistance from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Parks Canada, the collaborative project will also develop new disentanglement techniques that can save sea lions.

Dr. Haulena and his team have been working with several people for years to develop a safe and effective darting protocol for sea lions. This rescue was the first time in Canada anyone has successfully darted and disentangled a sea lion in the wild and represents a great leap forward in the Vancouver Aquarium’s rescue programs.

The disentanglement project is based on a recent study, funded by the Clayoquot Biosphere Trust, which investigated the frequency of sea lion entanglements in Clayoquot and Barkley Sounds. During a six-year period, 408 instances of sea lion entanglement were reported. Researchers agree these instances have a detrimental effect on already vulnerable populations.

The Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre is no stranger to the unfortunate intersection of humans and marine mammals. In 2011, the Aquarium rescued “Flash,” a California sea lion that had ingested four feet of fishing equipment. After removing a hook lodged in his esophagus and nursing him back to health at the Rescue Centre, Flash was successfully released back to his home waters. The Rescue Centre is currently caring for a sea otter suffering from gunshot wounds rescued earlier in October.

The public can report marine mammals that appear to be in distress to the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre at 604 258 SEAL (7325) or Fisheries and Oceans Canada at 1 800 465 4336.

The Vancouver Aquarium would like to thank Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Parks Canada and Brian Gisborne of Juan de Fuca Express for their assistance, the Canadian Wildlife Federation and Clayoquot Biosphere Trust for providing  grants for this important project. 

Donations made to the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre directly support the veterinary team’s ability to rescue distressed marine animals and provide the necessary medical care that allows the Rescue Centre to safely release rehabilitated animals. You can provide your support by donating today.

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5 Responses

  1. Leigh

    Thank you for caring so much for these animals in distress. It is a dangerous job and I can understand the hurdles that you have to jump over. I commend you in the jobs that you do. Keep up the great work. I sure hope you find Kiyo and are able to help him also. <3

  2. Bradly Stillwater

    Your team made a very difficult undertaking look easy. Nicely done! The video of the events stated that you are aware of at least seven more sea lions suffering the same entanglements. Two months have passed now, how many more of these animals has the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre attempted to free from their entanglements? And how long can they survive without any intervention?

    • Vancouver Aquarium

      Thanks for your encouragement and questions, Bradly. To respond to your inquiry, the weather and resighting of entangled animals have posed challenges. The disentanglement attempt took place very late in the sea lion season, and were very lucky to have gotten this opportunity when we did. We will be attempting this effort again starting next spring and summer when animals start moving back into this area.

      In terms of your second question, no one knows for sure how long animals can survive with entanglement, as it really depends on the type of entanglement. Although certainly not ideal, some animals have been seen for months, or even years, with entanglements.

  3. Eagle Wing Tours

    This is important work you are doing. As humans we have a responsibility for how we affect the other animals on this planet. Good work. Can you go into a bit more detail about the second sea lion?

    • Vancouver Aquarium

      Thanks for your concern and inquiry. Both sea lions have been sighted by biologists since the disentanglement, and have been reported to be doing fine. Researchers and citizen scientists continue to keep eyes out for sightings of these sea lions so that they can keep tabs on how they are doing.


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