Foraging ecology of recolonising female New Zealand sea lions around the Otago Peninsula, New Zealand.
Augé, Amélie A.
The New Zealand (NZ) sea lion, Phocarctos hookeri, is endemic to NZ and listed as threatened and nationally critical. It was extirpated from mainland NZ by the 1800s and it has only started recolonising part of its historical breeding range, the Otago Peninsula (OP), since the 1990s. This recolonisation has opened two areas of research: 1) data were needed for the management of interactions between humans and sea lions at sea and for marine habitat protection around the OP, and 2) comparison of data between the only three remnant breeding areas in the sub-Antarctic islands (hypothesised as marginal habitat) and the recolonising population. This thesis presents the results of the first study into the foraging ecology of the small recolonising population of female NZ sea lions inhabiting the OP. Up to 2010, 45 pups had been born at the OP, all descendants from a unique matriarch that emigrated from the sub-Antarctic North Auckland Islands (AI) breeding colony. During autumns 2008 to 2010, the foraging ecology, diet and condition of 13 female NZ sea lions born on the OP (all known-to-be alive ≥ 2 years old, including six during two different years) were investigated. They foraged within a small area around the OP (mean shore distance 4km), predominantly on shallow rocky reefs (<30m depth) and in the area of bryozoan thickets in deeper waters (50-100m depth). Their diving behaviour qualified them as some of the shallowest diving otariids (mean dive depth 20m). Two prey of medium-to-high-energy content (barracouta, Thyrsites atun, and jack mackerel, Trachurus sp.) made up approximately 60% of the diet of female NZ sea lions, although individual specialisations were identified. Pup growth and mass, body mass index and milk fat content all had values in the highest ranges reported for otariids and there was no indication of serious disease or parasite infection. From 2008 to 2010, weekly surveys of female NZ sea lions presence on the OP showed that they are likely permanent residents on the OP. Combined with calculated inter-annual foraging site fidelity, it enabled the descriptions of areas of potential by-catch risk in fisheries around the OP. A technique using decoys was developed to possibly orientate immigrating females to join the existing group and limit areas of interactions, at least during the start of this recolonisation. The recolonising population of female NZ sea lions on the OP exploits what appear to be abundant, easily accessible and high-energy food resources. Age was not a significant factor in explaining any foraging parameters, and foraging effort did not correlate to energy content of prey. This accentuated the suitability of the habitat around the OP for NZ sea lions. This is in contrast with results for the females in the AI that are the deepest and longest diving otariids, feed on lower energy prey and have lower condition than OP females. The results of this thesis corroborate the hypothesis that the AI are marginal marine habitat for this species. Current large-scale fisheries there may be depleting the already limited food resources and reducing the carrying capacity of the marine habitat. Management needs to address the marginality of the habitat to ensure the survival of the remnant populations. Management of the recolonisation of NZ sea lions onto mainland NZ needs to focus on public education, marine habitat protection, monitoring potential competition and determining if by-catch has been unreported. Given the importance of this population for the recovery of the NZ sea lion, a protected area covering the main foraging habitats of female NZ sea lions appears to be the best option to ensure its establishment. Regular monitoring of pup mass, diet and population numbers of sea lions and other large marine predators should increase our understanding of the impact of recolonisation to the habitat, and potential issues that need to be managed. The results presented in this thesis constitute the baseline of foraging ecology and condition for this population and are available to help manage and document the recolonsiation for future management needs in other areas where the NZ sea lion may return.
Advisor: Davis, Lloyd S.; Chilvers, B. Louise; Moore, Antoni B.
Degree Name: Doctor of Philosophy
Degree Discipline: Zoology
Publisher: University of Otago
Keywords: Phocarctos hookeri; spatial ecology; GIS; Auckland Islands; prey species; wildlife management; diving behaviour; fisheries interaction; decoy animal; pinniped; individual differences; threatened species; marine habitat
Research Type: Thesis