Marine biologists working on British Columbia’s west coast have known for years that there is a difficult issue with sea lions and debris. It’s estimated that there are as many as 400 sea lions that have become ensnared in discarded rope, nets, packing straps and wire, and as they grow bigger, the material begins to cut into them, causing discomfort and sometimes serious injuries.
It’s no easy feat to remove the debris and to treat those injuries, however; sea lions are big, wild and not friendly to humans. When approached, they often dive into the water. Saving them requires the expertise of a veterinarian who works regularly with marine mammals.
Fortunately for B.C.’s sea lions, that someone is Vancouver Aquarium’s head veterinarian Dr. Martin Haulena. From the moment he first encountered dolphins in a small aquarium in Florida as a seven-year-old, he was inspired to care for aquatic animals, and for their environment. He graduated from the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph in 1993, completed a clinical internship in aquatic animal medicine at Mystic Aquarium in 1996 and obtained a Master’s degree in pathobiology from the University of Guelph in 1999. He joined the Vancouver Aquarium in 2006, where veterinary students from around the world come to study aquatic animal medicine each year under his direction. He has written more than 45 scientific journal articles and book chapters.
Just one of his many research projects has been to develop an effective combination of drugs and protocols to safely dart sea lions for the removal of entangled gear. Marine mammal anesthesia is a risky process; for sea lions, it must immobilize them enough so they can be approached, but not so much that their safety is at risk if they enter the water after darting. Fortunately, Dr. Haulena had the experience with sea lions and the research capabilities at Vancouver Aquarium to find the solution.
On April 15, Dr. Haulena set out with members of Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, presented by Port Metro Vancouver, with support from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, for the team’s fourth disentanglement trip on Vancouver Island. Once again, they headed for Fanny Bay, on the island’s east coast, where a large population of the animals haul out on the docks and log booms nearby, and again, Dr. Haulena successfully darted an adult male sea lion and removed marine debris from where it was cutting deeply into its neck.
There are many more sea lions yet to be rescued, but the Aquarium cautions that rescues should not be attempted by the public. If you see a marine mammal in distress, call Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre at 604 258 SEAL (7325) or Fisheries and Oceans Canada at 1-800-465-4336. To support the work of Aquarium’s Rescue Centre, donate at www.vanaqua.org/mmr.
To learn more about the sea lion disentanglement project, join the Vancouver Aquarium in a presentation on May 9: Rescuing Sea Lions: Notes From The Field. The talk will be led by Dr. Haulena and research associate Wendy Szaniszlo who will discuss sea lion entanglement issues in B.C., the development of an anesthetic protocol for disentangling sea lions, the types of debris they have on them and more. Tickets are available here.