Sea Lion Research Centre Faces Uncertain Future

Did you know that Port Moody is home to some of the most highly trained sea lions in the world?

Two of the four stellar sea lions that live at the UBC Marine Mammal Research Station in Port Moody. Photo courtesy: UBC Marine Mammal Research Station.

Two of the four stellar sea lions that live at the UBC Marine Mammal Research Station in Port Moody. Photo courtesy: UBC Marine Mammal Research Station.

They live at the UBC Marine Mammal Research Station in Port Moody, a suburb 30 minutes from downtown Vancouver, B.C. There are four stellar sea lions in total at the one-of-a-kind facility and the work they do is so important.

The open water laboratory was designed to study free-swimming seals and sea lions. The goal is to not only to do research to help the wild population of sea lions but to stretch conservation efforts to gauge the effects of climate change, pollution, and dwindling fish stocks.

The lab’s open water stellar sea lions are Hazy, Sitka, Yasha, and Boni. They live in two floating habitats where they swim freely and dive every day in Indian Arm. They all wear harnesses and are trained to dive to feeding stations that simulate schools of fish as deep as a 20-storey highrise. Some say sea lions remind them of dogs, an accurate comparison when you learn that the lab’s sea lions return to the researchers when called.

The research station is 16 years old and its continued existence is now in jeopardy. Funding has dried up. After this year, survival will be a stressful month-to-month existence. It costs thousands of dollars to feed a single seal lion and there are operating costs. The challenges don’t end there; according to this Tri-City News article Canadian Pacific Railway is building a $31-million track expansion project right next to the marina where the research station is located.

According to the rail project’s application, strong, low-frequency sounds will accompany the workday and night, seven days a week for two months.

“These animals are sensitive,” Rosen told the News’ Stefan Labbé. “In the past, a company was testing sonar in the waters near Port Moody. The sea lions were visibly disturbed by sounds traveling through the water.”

The stellar sea lions live in two big populations. There’s one in B.C. and one in a larger group that stretches from eastern Japan through the Aleutian archipelago and down the Alaskan coast. Both populations plummeted by the early 1990s due to overfishing (the sea lions rely on fish for survival) and culling. We’ve written about the history of the pinniped, seal, and sea lion cull and the movement to cull again even though marine biologists say there isn’t an overabundance of the mammals – they’ve just climbed back to levels they should be at.

Photo courtesy: UBC Marine Mammal Research Station.

Photo courtesy: UBC Marine Mammal Research Station.

The research station is poised to be even more important during this time of warming oceans along with habitat destruction that accompanies development. “The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans is predicting this to be one of the worst years for B.C. salmon on record and, in a recent report, noted climate change is almost certainly a major factor,” writes Labbé.

“Beyond sea lions, the experience and location of the research station place it in the perfect position to understand this critical ecological moment, said Rosen. Locally, that means measuring the impacts of development – including industrial pollutants, boat traffic and how increased human populations can affect water quality – on Harbour seals, salmon, and increasingly, transient orcas.”

Show your support of the Marine Mammal Research Station by spreading the word, donating, or by buying a beer. North Coast Brewing is donating a portion of North  Coast Stellar IPA to fund the station.