Sea Shorts: New Zealand's endangered sea lion

The New Zealand sea lion (Phocarctos hookeri) is endemic to New Zealand's mainland and Sub-Antarctic islands. With females weighing in at around 168 kg and males at a massive 450 kg, this hefty marine mammal earns the title of being one of New Zealand's largest animals to grace the land. 

 This fine sea lion was spotted on the Otago Peninsula in New Zealand's South Island. Credit: Samantha Andrews/Ocean Oculus

This fine sea lion was spotted on the Otago Peninsula in New Zealand's South Island. Credit: Samantha Andrews/Ocean Oculus

Sadly, the New Zealand sea lion population is not in good shape, earning an Endangered status from the IUCN, and a Nationally Critical status from New Zealand's Department of Conservation. Historically, sea lions were hunted by both Māori and European settlers. Hunting virtually eradicated sea lions from New Zealand's North Island, and the Auckland Islands in the Sub-Antarctic.

Hunting was banned in the 1890s, but population recovery has been slow. Today most sea lions breed on just two islands in the Sub-Antarctic (including the Auckland Islands), but some have made it back to mainland New Zealand. In 1993 a sea lion (nicknamed mum) arrived on the Otago Peninsula and gave birth to the first pup on the mainland in 100 years! 

Despite this good news, on the Auckland Islands where approximately 70% of pups are born, numbers are still declining. There are multiple reasons for this, like being accidentally caught or entangled in fishing gear, competition with fisheries for food, disease outbreaks, or low genetic diversity - an artefact from the enormous scale of the hunting that used to take place.