At the far end of Port Moody’s Reed Point Marina, sandwiched between the train track and the east end of Burrard Inlet, two floating cages hold four female Steller sea lions: Hazy, Sitka, Yasha, and Boni. In the same location there is an office on a floating dock and two research boats are moored nearby.
The University of British Columbia (UBC)’s Open Water Research Station, as it is called, is run by UBC’s Marine Mammal Research Unit (MMRU).
According to the project’s website “[t]his is an ambitious project to discover the reasons behind the mysterious disappearance of sea lions and what it could mean for the ocean ecosystem.”
Its mission statement says: “Our Mission [is] to undertake open ocean research with trained sea lions that contributes to the conservation of marine mammals in the wild.“
Eight female sea lion pups were kidnapped from Triangle Island off the northwestern tip of Vancouver Island between 1997 and 2003 to be used for research by UBC and the Vancouver Aquarium. Currently, the research station holds four and the Vancouver Aquarium the other four that it sometimes ‘rents’ out to other facilities and projects. If the Port Moody station were to close, all the sea lions will go to the aquarium.
As with dolphin parks, the caged chimps at Yerkes National Primate Research Center or UC Berkley’s former hyena colony, researchers justify captivity by claiming THEY can’t get the answers THEY ‘need’ in the wild. They prefer to have regular, controlled access to their study subjects. For some projects scientists would still like to collect data under circumstances as natural as possible and this is where Port Moody’s open water facility comes in.
In their own words “[t]he UBC Marine Mammal Research Unit established the Open Water Research Laboratory in Port Moody, BC in 2003 to bridge the gap between the logistical limitations of field studies and the physical constraints of traditional work in an aquarium.”
According to the website the sea lions are allowed to freely swim and dive each day, but the start of the open water lab had nothing to do with the interests of the animals, but with the fact that pool sizes put constraints on understand diving and foraging abilities.
It is said that the facility was created in an effort to save the Steller sea lion, but how endangered is this largest sea lion in the world really?
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Steller sea lion includes two recognized subspecies, the western Steller sea lion and the Loughlin’s Steller sea lion, Eumetopias jubatus jubatus and E. j. monteriensis respectively. The western subspecies primarily occupies the area west of the 144° W longitude (Alaska, eastern Russia, Japan and the chain of islands in between). The eastern subspecies occurs east of 144° W longitude (North America minus Alaska).
In their assessment for the red list of threatened species the IUCN says about the Steller sea lion subspecies: “Western Steller Sea Lions experienced a dramatic and unexplained population decline of about 70% between the late 1970s and 1990. The population reached its low point in approximately 2000, and through 2015 has shown an overall annual increase of 1.8% per year in the USA. However, in the western Aleutian Islands Sea Lion numbers have continued to decline. Overall, the western subspecies had experienced a population reduction of approximately 50% during the last three generations and continues to meet IUCN criteria for Endangered. The Loughlin’s Steller Sea Lion population [the ones captured by the UBC] has increased steadily since 1979, and is projected to be 243% larger in 2015 than in 1985. That subspecies does not meet any of the criteria for IUCN threatened categories.”
The IUCN assessment continues: “The decline for 1985-2015 (three generations) is estimated to be approximately 62% in the USA and 50% for the entire population, including Russia. However, despite continued declines in the western Aleutian Islands, overall abundance has increased in both the USA (1.8% per year) and in Russia since the early 1990s …”
The UBC researchers, however, use a much higher number when discussing the decline. They say that in Alaska over the past 40 years the population has declined by 85%.
The total abundance of the western population is estimated by the IUCN scientists to be approximately 79,929 in 2015, with 55,791 in the USA and 24,138 in Russia. Still according to the IUCN assessment, the eastern population of Steller Sea Lions, the subspecies studied at port Moody, has increased at an average rate of more than 3% per year since 1979. Total abundance of this subspecies in 2015 is estimated at approximately 80,938 (NMFS unpublished data). In 2013 this eastern subspecies was taken off the U.S. Endangered Species List.
When the two subspecies are combined, the global abundance of Steller Sea Lions is estimated to be approximately 160,867 in 2015, which is a reduction of 13% since 1985.
The IUCN concludes: “…given that abundance of both subspecies is currently increasing the probability of extinction is certainly less than 10% in 100 years.” There is no doubt that Steller sea lions, like all other sea lions and most wildlife, have suffered under their encounters with humans, but are they currently in the position that they need saving by the UBC so badly that individual animals have to be kidnapped from the wild? Is the UBC MMRU deliberately painting a bleaker picture with an exaggerated decline percentage to justify their program?
Vancouver Aquarium staff train the sea lions, while UBC researchers collect the data. Research started at the aquarium, then expanded to the open-water site. One of the behaviors researched is how deep and long Steller sea lions can dive and how much energy they have to expend to do it. The sea lions wear a harness that carries scientific instruments when they swim in open water. They are trained to dive to feeding stations, simulating schools of fish, as deep as 60 meter.
Each sea lion is trained to dive from a respirometry dome mounted on a research vessel at the surface to the feeding tubes at depth, then return to the floating dome, where oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production is measured with gas analyzers. This provides an estimation of energy expenditure.
The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) funded the program with more than $1 million a year at its peak to find answers to the dramatic decline in Steller sea lions in western Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, but the amount dropped to $300,000 in 2016 and the facility almost closed.
The station needs $200,000 per year to keep operating at a basic level, with research costs adding another $100,000, according to reporting in the Vancouver Sun.
In reaction to the financial troubles UBC professor Andrew Trites said: “We still have so much to do here. We have this incredible research facility right on the waters of Vancouver. If it closes down, it will never ever happen again. There is no other place like it.” Absent in his lament is the urgency to save the Steller sea lion.
The Vancouver Aquarium had already stepped in to cover feeding and staffing costs associated with the research program.
A 2016 Vancouver Sun article claimed that “[o]ver the years, the sea lions in Burrard Inlet have had the opportunity to leave and return to the wild but they always return to their keepers and their caged facility — though one did stay out for 48 hours, shadowed by a research vessel, until returning.” That an uninformed newspaper writes this is one thing, but that a scientist like Trites confirms it is disingenuous. “Every time they’re out, they could leave at any point,” he told the paper. “It’s entirely voluntary.”
These animals were involuntary kidnapped as pups from their home, locked up in an aquarium, never learned to forage for themselves, drilled into obeying commands in exchange for food rewards and in this way made dependent on offered dead fish and indoctrinated into returning to their ‘masters’.
The open water research lab is testing the hypothesis that sea lions are not obtaining enough food. Research suggests that sea lions in western Alaska may be suffering from a poorer diet of pollock and Atka mackerel, which are not as nutritious as the herring, sardines and sandlance to which B.C. sea lions have access. In Alaska the fatty fish sea lions normally eat are being replaced by leaner fish, a problem for weaning pups that need to put on a lot of weight fast. As a result pups stay with their mothers for an extra one or two years as the mums can turn low-calorie food into energy-rich milk. This means that the females will only have a pup once every two to three years, reducing recruitment in the species. A large-scale shift in oceanic conditions in the late 1970s is blamed on the change in available prey, conveniently absolving human actions, like overfishing.
Of course we already know how we are damaging ocean ecosystems; that we are polluting the oceans with chemicals and heavy metals like mercury, PCBs, DDT and flame-retardants, to name just a few; garbage like plastic bags or balloons choke marine mammals, while both in-use and discarded nets, ropes and crab-pots entangle them. We also know that the greenhouse gasses we emit, from fossil fuel burning and the livestock industry change the climate, ocean temperatures, acidity & currents and thereby change the distribution of (prey) species and the entire bio-diversity of ecosystems. There is undeniable proof that by our insatiable hunger for fish we compete with the original ocean predators, like sea lions, and fish-out oceans and species. By our activities we destroy habitats and directly and indirectly, deliberate and collateral, kill marine mammals among all our other victims.
In the 1950s and 1960s Steller sea lions were the subject of bounties and culls in Southeast Alaska and Canada. This practice continues today in Japan. In 2010 a new 5-year quota of 1030 culled Sea Lions was imposed. In 2015 approximately 400 Steller Sea Lions were reported to be culled in Japan (Yamamura et al. 2015).
The US Marine Mammal Protection Act still allows Alaska Natives to take Steller Sea Lions for subsistence and the creation of native handicrafts. We know Steller sea lions drown in fishing nets and according to the IUCN an unknown number may be shot during commercial fishing operations.
The 2013 delisting of the eastern population of Steller sea lions in the US opened the door for culling of these animals where they are thought to threaten the salmon fishing industry in the USA, for instance at the Bonneville Dam – the dam is, together with fishing the real threat to salmon – on the Columbia river. Between the time that the program got the green light in 2012 and 2016, more than one-hundred California sea lions were ‘removed’ from the area just below Bonneville Dam. Some 15 have been sent to zoos and public displays, while 85 were ‘euthanized’. Seven more died during trapping and handling. In 2015 alone, agencies killed 32 California sea lions. The ‘pogrom’ seems to escalate, so it is not unlikely it might in the future include Steller sea lions that are also present at the Bonneville Dam. In 2016, the states, mainly Washington and Oregon, removed and euthanized 59 sea lions, the most in any single year since the program began (two additional sea lions were accidentally killed).
A bipartisan bill wants to go much further. H.R. 2083, the Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Protection Act, if passed by Congress, would augment existing state, federal, and tribal authorities and allow quicker and more efficient intervention. The bill also wants to make it easier to kill California sea lions found on the Willamette River and its tributaries, and anywhere on the Columbia River east of Interstate 205.
If the legislation is approved, as many as 920 sea lions could be killed annually, compared with 92 under the current agreement.
The IUCN suggest the following causes for the Steller sea lion decline: “Deliberate killing by fishermen, disease, incidental take by fisheries, and reduced food supply […] (Lowry et al. 1989, Loughlin and York 2000).”
The 2008 Recovery Plan of the Steller Sea Lion Recovery Team (NMFS 2008) recognized three threats as “potentially high”: environmental variability, competition with commercial fisheries, and Killer Whale predation.
Directed killings and fishing could be stopped directly if there was a real interest in reducing Steller sea lion mortality without any more research needed.
In a research video on the sea lion research website the lead-scientist asks the question “what can we do as people to make it right?” Deduced from the above, the answers are pretty simple: stop fishing, stop targeted killings, move to renewable energy sources and plant-based diets, ban harmful chemicals and plastic bags, balloons, packaging, etc… And then leave the animals alone.
The scientists at the facility were friendly and open and clearly love their subject, but the ethics of science should always be questioned and this cannot be left to the scientific community itself. Where and how does the research provide a proven benefit to the animals? And how much of the goal simply consists of satisfying the curiosity of the men and women running the program? Another important question to ask is: even when there is a real, proven benefit to the animals studied, does this justify sacrificing the freedom of individuals and steal them from the wild? Would we do this to non-consensual humans? If not – and the answer is of course ‘no’ – why should we do it to animals?
Their website doesn’t answer these questions. Actually, when it comes to the page ‘How Science Helps‘, the wording becomes vague:
“Determining how much energy sea lions need to swim and forage helps scientists assess whether they can get enough to eat in the wild.”
“Well-supported science helps policy makers protect species and manage fisheries to ensure that Steller sea lion numbers rebound.”
On the UBC webpage, conservation seems to be only a distant goal: “This facility enables the development and testing of new techniques and technologies for studying marine mammals in the wild, and allows researchers to gather valuable physiological data about the animals that they can’t get in the field.“
They don’t aim higher than vague ideals to be realized “one day“: “MMRU’s research could one day shape fisheries policies and practices, allow us to better understand marine ecosystems, and help preserve our ocean’s biodiversity.”
The drive behind the open water lab and thus this form of sea lion captivity seems to lean a lot more towards satisfying scientist curiosity, keeping them in a job, raking in funds and vague hopes for the future, than saving lives from extinction and therefore cannot justify stealing individuals from the wild.
The Vancouver Aquarium board decided last year to ban holding cetaceans at the Aquarium, because, in the words of board chair Stuart Mackinnon, “[t]he public told us they believed the continuing importation and display of these intelligent and sociable mammals was unethical and incompatible with evolving public opinion…” In January 2018, the Aquarium announced through president and CEO John Nightingale, that they would no longer displaying cetaceans. Progress that should eventually outlaw holding other marine mammals as well.