Rescuers disentangle sea lion from plastic strap near Tofino

Rescuers disentangle sea lion from plastic strap near Tofino

WATCH: GoPro footage shows a team removing a packing strap from a Steller sea lion on July 9. Credit: Vancouver Island Aquarium. Warning: This video contains footage some viewers may find distressing.

A Steller sea lion was recently disentangled from a packing strap that was cutting into her neck by a team from the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre.

The rescue, which took place on July 9 on Cleland Island near Tofino, was captured on GoPro strapped to Vancouver Aquarium Head Veterinarian Dr. Martin Haulena.

Footage of the rescue shows Haulena shooting a dart to sedate the female sea lion, who is estimated to be between eight to 12-years-old. Once the animal was sedated, the team cut the packing strap from her neck with a scalpel blade, gave her antibiotics and tagged her. They then reversed the anaesthetic and watched as she woke up and swam away.

“She was losing weight, she was very skinny, she was probably not able to forage as well as she should and it was an injury that would eventually cause death,” Haulena said.

“It can take a month or even a year for that to happen so it’s a very long, nasty process.”

During the rescue, three people were on shore, three people in one boat and four people in a second boat.

Haulena said the footage shows the effort that goes into disentangling the sea lions.

“It also really emphasizes the degree of injury that happens to the animal directly as a result of human activity,” Haulena said.

The packing strap was a “tough material,” that is difficult to break and sharp at the edges.

The Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre has been disentangling sea lions in British Columbia and filming the team’s experiences since 2013. Haulena is the only professionally-trained veterinarian in Canada who can disentangle sea lions from marine debris. A precise drug combination is used to temporarily sedate the sea lion. In the past, Haulena said they weren’t able to catch the animals to disentangle them.

“It’s one of the things that I’m most proud of that we do,” Haulena said. “It’s a program that we helped develop.”

The rescue teams are supported by Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Parks Canada and B.C. Parks. Haulena said they work with a number of people and whale watching businesses who will report injured sea lions. However, Haulena said often the animals can’t be helped out because permits are required, a crew has to be brought together and it takes time to travel from Vancouver to Vancouver Island. By then, the animal may have left the area.

They typically rescue about four to six sea lions per year.

“It is really difficult to get out there. It’s difficult to find animals that are reliably in the same place where we can launch a rescue. Weather is a huge factor for us, especially when we are working in open water,” Haulena said.

A sea lion is taken back to the water after rescuers cut off a plastic strap that was around her neck. Credit: Vancouver Aquarium 

Alexa HuffmanAlexa Huffman

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