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Management Plan for the Steller Sea Lion (Eumetopias jubatus) in Canada

2. Management

2.1 Goal

There are two goals of this management plan.

  1. To ensure that anthropogenic threats from Canadian sources do not cause unsustainable population declines, or a contraction of the current range or number of breeding sites in Canada.

  2. Support for, and contribution to, an environment where research and monitoring of Steller Sea Lions in B.C., contributes to achieving an improved global knowledge of the Eastern Pacific Population

The Eastern Pacific Steller Sea Lion population continues to exhibit population growth, with no evidence of having reached carrying capacity. It can be expected that at some point the population growth of this prey-dependent species will level and fluctuate in response to natural changes in prey abundance. The role of Canadian management of this species is to protect the population within Canada from anthropogenic sources of mortality that are unsustainable. As there are gaps in our understanding of this species’ ecology and population dynamics, along with impacts of identified threats, a key component of achieving the first goal will be to address knowledge gaps.

This species is trans-boundary in its distribution, and research and management are currently conducted by Canadian and U.S. governments, as well as private organizations and independent researchers. The second goal of this management plan recognizes that management initiatives and research are most effectively conducted in a coordinated and collaborative manner with all parties, where feasible.

2.2 Objectives

Population Objectives

P1 Maintain a viable population and prevent the population from declining to levels at which it would be considered at risk of extinction.

Distribution Objectives

D1 Maintain the annual usage of all three main rookeries and support the establishment of the fourth breeding site as a permanent rookery.

D2 Maintain the number and utilization of existing haul-outs in British Columbia to ensure a widespread distribution along the B.C. coast.

Maintenance of the abundance and distribution of Steller Sea Lions in B.C. over the next three generations will ensure that this population is protected within Canada. Protection for known haulout sites and rookeries will ensure that required terrestrial habitat is available throughout the coast. As the population has sustained an increasing trend for over four decades and is currently above known historic peak levels, monitoring data will contribute to the detection of declining population trends, or significant contraction in distribution.

Research and Monitoring Objectives

Research and monitoring objectives for this management plan focus on priority needs as follows:

R1 Conduct range wide population assessments through coordinated Canadian and U.S. surveys, where feasible.

R2 Contribute to, and foster an improved understanding of Steller Sea Lion biology and habitat requirements in B.C.

R3 Support, foster and contribute to research addressing knowledge gaps regarding identified (Table 1) and unidentified threats to this population.

R4 Determine total cumulative levels of human-caused annual mortalities for Steller Sea Lions in B.C. that can be sustained.

Research should focus on key knowledge gaps for this species, listed in ‘Knowledge Gaps’, and those regarding the effects of the threats identified in this management plan.

Presently, population surveys within B.C. are typically conducted every four years. As Steller Sea Lions range across both the northern and southern Canadian-U.S. boundaries, an emphasis on coordination of these surveys is necessary to generate a total population estimate for the Eastern Pacific Steller Sea Lion population. This in turn will increase our understanding of the relative importance of the Canadian component of this population. More frequent monitoring, particularly at local breeding sites, will enhance our ability to detect and respond to population declines.

Research on foraging ecology is identified as a priority for research in Canada, including assessment for potential fisheries interactions. Additionally, programs to clarify vital rates, habitat utilization and fine-scale genetic makeup will assist in directing management and protection of this population in B.C.

Steller Sea Lions are susceptible to a number of human-induced sources of mortality. A better understanding of the current levels of human-induced mortality and their trends over time is necessary, and determination of sustainable thresholds of human-caused mortality (Obj. R4) will assist in monitoring population level effects. Steller Sea Lion populations have been growing in recent years, indicating that current levels of human-induced mortality are sustainable. However, this could change if conditions were to become less favourable for sea lions, in which case the mortalities could attenuate the rates of population growth or exasperate the magnitude of population fluctuations.

Management Objectives

Table 1 summarizes the assessment of threats to Eastern Pacific Steller Sea Lions, and presents the perceived mitigation potential for each threat. Analysis of severity, occurrence and causal certainty provided an overall level of concern for each threat in terms of impacts to this population’s viability. Over the next ten years, the following management objectives aim to ensure that the threats currently of greatest concern do not impact the population or distribution of Steller Sea Lions in B.C., and to contribute to the conservation of this population throughout its range.

M1 Promote international collaboration, independent research, education and outreach on management and conservation initiatives

M2 Minimize the exposure of Steller Sea Lions to pollutants

M3 Minimize the level of disturbance of Steller Sea Lions at rookeries during the breeding season

M4 Reduce the risk of catastrophic spills impacting Steller Sea Lions or their habitat in Canada

M5 Minimize the exposure of Steller Sea Lions to acute sound levels known to cause behavioural or physical harm in pinnipeds

M6 Minimize the likelihood of prey limitation caused by anthropogenic factors

The population shows a continued increasing trend. Management objectives addressing threats of greatest concern aim to prevent undesirable population decreases and prevent significant alterations in distribution of Steller Sea Lions in B.C. Catastrophic spills, disturbance (i.e. at rookeries), and contaminants are considered to be the human-induced threats that require mitigation or management in order to meet the first goal of this management plan. The limitation of prey species through anthropogenic means is of concern. However specific information on Steller Sea Lion prey needs is lacking. Thus monitoring of prey supply and research will be the primary tool to assist in addressing the M6 objective.  

The threats assessed at a low or unknown level of concern do not have specific objectives or new recommendations for mitigation; instead, knowledge gaps will be filled by opportunistic or cost-effective means, where feasible. Some threats impact individual sea lions, but do not constitute a population level effect. Where potential for effective mitigation of a threat is high (Table 1) and resources are available, it is prudent to manage and mitigate these threats when feasible.

2.3 Actions

The following non-prioritized actions support the objectives outlined in Section 2.2. Some of the actions listed below are currently underway (see Section 1.6 ‘Actions Already Completed, or Underway’), and have been identified in other recovery planning documents to date (See Section 4 ‘Associated Plans’). The synchronization of these listed activities for protection, management and research will facilitate a multi-species approach to marine mammal conservation in B.C., and allow for effective use of resources available. Actions have been recommended where implementation is deemed to be practical and feasible, and where they are most likely to result in successful protection of the Steller Sea Lion population in B.C.

Where responsibility for actions is determined to fall under the jurisdiction of Fisheries and Oceans Canada or the Parks Canada Agency, actions will be implemented directly as availability of funding and other resources permit. However, collaboration with other responsible agencies and organizations will be necessary to complete some actions. If responsibility for actions falls outside of the mandate or jurisdiction of Fisheries and Oceans Canada or the Parks Canada Agency, support for implementation of the action(s) and contribution to effort(s) will be a priority where feasible. Potential participating agencies and organizations and implementation timelines for each of the listed actions are presented in Section 3 (Table 3). Organizations currently involved in data collection on the Eastern Pacific population of Steller Sea Lions are listed in Appendix II.

2.3.1 Protection

1. To protect Steller Sea Lions from disturbance (physical and acoustic) at, or adjacent to, the four breeding sites, twenty-three year-round, and numerous winter haulouts in B.C.

  • Continue to enforce the MMR and promote Be Whale Wise guidelines for marine mammal viewing, as well as relevant regulations for marine industrial development.

2. Continue enforcement of regulations for discarding debris3, and develop new fishing gear standards for troll, seine and long line fisheries to reduce the risk of entanglement in marine debris and/or directly in fishing gear.

2.3.2 Management

3. Continue to manage fish resources and fisheries where there is overlap with Steller Sea Lion diet. Consider Steller Sea Lion dietary needs when changes to current fisheries management regimes occur for species known to be important to Steller Sea Lions in B.C.

4. Continue to review project proposals that include activities with potential to generate disturbance at haulouts or at rookeries, and provide project-specific advice for mitigation or avoidance with respect to Steller Sea Lion habitat needs.

5. While contaminants are listed as a threat to this population, the management of biological and chemical contamination falls under the jurisdiction of Environment Canada. The following actions are recommended to assist in reducing toxic loading of marine mammals and their habitat.

  • Develop a DFO emergency response plan to identify marine mammal expertise required in spill response initiatives, when triggered.

  • Develop a marine mammal-specific DFO operational manual to be included into existing catastrophic spill response plan(s)4 to identify response protocols and data collection required for mitigation and monitoring of short and long-term effects to marine mammals and important habitat.

  • Review management of point-sources of toxic pollution within known Steller Sea Lion habitat, to assess compliance with federal, provincial, and regional guidelines regarding thresholds for environmental contamination for the specific toxins listed in Appendix I.

6. Support low-impact research activities through permitting and range-wide coordination of trans-boundary research, as well as monitoring and assessment (Sections 2.3.3 and 2.3.4) to address key knowledge gaps and clarify identified threats while minimizing the level of disturbance to animals. This will also ensure uniform and standardized data collection for population- and range-wide assessments and comparisons.

7. Strengthen measures to reduce the risk of entanglement of Steller Sea Lions in marine debris, aquaculture and fishing gear.

  • Support the Marine Mammal Response Network (MMRN) to collect data in support of comprehensive understanding of the following threats: incidental by-catch, entanglement in marine debris, fishing and aquaculture gear.

  • Strengthen, support and foster, where feasible, the continued development of fisheries observer reporting standards and guidelines for marine mammal species identification and data collection to clarify the extent of fisheries interactions in terms of entanglement, by-catch, or depredation and to gather samples, where possible, and when required.

  • Continue to develop solutions to predator interactions and quarterly reporting on marine mammal kills at aquaculture sites, and continue the development of reporting requirements for marine mammal interactions at aquaculture sites. Of particular importance are accurate species identification, data collection, and temporal requirements for reporting of incidents.

  • Continue to work with the aquaculture industry to evaluate and develop best management practices for mitigating Steller Sea Lion depredation and subsequent entanglements (e.g. more effective predator net infrastructure).

  • Suggest alternative gear types to proactively minimize likelihood of entanglements in marine debris, and fishing and aquaculture gear. Of particular importance is the consideration of entanglement risk for predator nets, packing bands, and ingestion of hooks from trolling and long line gear. This action will assist in the continued evolution of guidelines, best management practices, regulations and standards.

8. Evaluate the risk to Steller Sea Lions in B.C. from catastrophic spills and acoustic and vessel disturbance that might result from lifting the moratorium on offshore fossil fuel exploration and extraction in B.C. Of particular concern are impacts to at-sea foraging success near year-round haulout and breeding sites in B.C.

2.3.3 Research on Steller Sea Lion Biology

The following areas are those that have been identified as a priority for research actions to address knowledge gaps surrounding species biology. Other potential areas for research efforts have been listed in previous sections of this management plan and should also be considered in the context of supporting those topics listed below.

9. Fisheries and Oceans Canada will support, contribute to and foster Steller Sea Lion research, by management of samples and data collected by non-governmental organizations and the public, including:

  • Tissue samples from the B.C. Steller Sea Lion population for potential future genetic, pathogen and fatty acid research. This will assist in collection of genetics, and pathogen data to better understand the requirements and health of the B.C. population, and to facilitate range-wide comparisons.

  • Brand re-sighting efforts and photographs of branded animals, where and when opportunity presents itself, to assist in addressing uncertainties in vital rates, movements of individuals and other knowledge gaps.

10. Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Parks Canada Agency will support, contribute to, and foster, where feasible, the following directed research actions to address key knowledge gaps for Steller Sea Lions.

  • Studies on foraging areas, and seasonal distribution of sea lions and their prey species to address uncertainties regarding prey availability near rookeries.

  • Studies addressing uncertainties regarding the diet of Steller Sea Lions outside of the breeding season.

  • Maintenance of database for brand re-sight data, to facilitate organization of data collected, and data sharing between researchers.

2.3.4 Research to Clarify Identified Threats

Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Parks Canada Agency will support, contribute to, and foster, where feasible, the following research actions to address knowledge gaps on threats to the population.

11. Assess current levels and trends in annual human-caused mortality that can be sustained by Steller Sea Lions under various conditions (to achieve the population objective).

12. Determine the diet of Steller Sea Lions (across all seasons) to assess the potential for fisheries competition for prey resources.

13. Investigate seasonal variation in significance of impacts from research-related disturbance at haulouts and rookeries to clarify the magnitude of this identified threat.

14. Gather information on entanglement rates observed during Steller Sea Lion research in B.C. to compile information on entanglement rates, gear types, and severity of entanglements, and explore and develop methods for disentangling animals.

15. Collect samples for analyses of toxin and pathogen loading in Steller Sea Lions, when feasible.

16. Conduct assessments of current sources of biological pollutants within known Steller Sea Lion habitat to assess the potential for population-level impacts. Of particular significance are agricultural sources of pollutants and rehabilitation programs.

17. Identification of significant non-point sources of toxic contamination within Steller Sea Lion habitat in B.C. Of particular importance are emerging contaminants and those sources in close proximity to rookeries and year-round haulouts.

2.3.5 Monitoring Population Status

18. Continue to support, and contribute to the coordination of range-wide aerial and vessel surveys, every four years.

19. Consider additional biennial rookery surveys to more closely monitor breeding populations.

2.3.6 Outreach and Communication

20. Foster improved communication networks to increase awareness of initiatives for Steller Sea Lion conservation and research.

  • Pro-actively build intra- and interagency networks for effective communication during catastrophic spill response to allow timely, effective and coordinated actions by responsible agencies and parties.

  • Support and contribute, where feasible, to trans-boundary and inter-jurisdictional collaboration on conservation initiatives to ensure a coordinated response to conservation of this population.

  • Ongoing media communications and promotion of the Marine Mammal Regulations and ‘Be Whale Wise: marine wildlife guidelines for boaters, paddlers and viewers’ to reduce physical and acoustic disturbance at haulouts. This action will facilitate increased awareness of regulations and facilitate ease of enforcement measures.

  • Support, where feasible, independent education and awareness programs on:

    • Significance of marine debris in entanglement of Steller Sea Lions.

    • Measures to avoid or minimize depredation of commercial and sport fishing gear.

    • The importance of reporting marine mammal incidents involving Steller Sea Lions to the DFO Marine Mammal Response Program (1-800-465-4336).

    • Mitigation measures available to reduce chemical and biological contamination of habitat.

3 For example; Canada Shipping Act, Regulations for Prevention of Pollution from Ships and for Dangerous Chemicals.
4 Include in the operational manual, measures outlined in the Fisheries and Oceans Canada ‘Marine mammal incident response’ manual and ‘Sea otter oil spill response plan for Canada’s Pacific coast’ (draft).