New Zealand Journal of Ecology (2018) 42(1): 48- 57

Preliminary assessment of the foraging behaviour and population dynamics of a cryptic population of the endangered New Zealand sea lion

Research Article
B. Louise Chilvers  
  1. Marine Species and Threats Team, Department of Conservation, PO Box 10420, Wellington 6143, New Zealand
  2. Present address: Wildbase, IVABS, Massey University, Private Bag 11222, Palmerston North 4400, New Zealand

The endangered New Zealand sea lion (Phocarctos hookeri) has recently been confirmed as breeding on Stewart Island/Rakiura, southern New Zealand. This area is thought to have the largest number of sea lion pups born outside of the New Zealand subantarctics. However, the sparse distribution and cryptic behaviour of this population means known human threats and their effects on the population will be difficult to determine, limiting conservation priority setting and management. This research aimed to investigate the foraging behaviour of adult females from the population and examine what information is available to help determine current population parameters including undertaking pup surveys in the area. Foraging behaviour research was undertaken in the Austral autumn 2012 and 2013, while pup production surveys were undertaken in March each year between 2011 and 2016. Pup production surveys show up to 36 pups are born in the Stewart Island area annually. The foraging behaviour of 14 adult female New Zealand sea lions was characterised by short foraging trips (c. 12 hrs), close to shore or in areas of known upwellings, undertaking short, shallow dives (average 2.5 mins, 60 m). This diving behaviour is intermediate between the foraging behaviours of females from Enderby Island (Auckland Islands), the largest but severely declining population of New Zealand sea lions, and Otago (mainland New Zealand), a smaller, increasing recolonising population. Based on the foraging behaviour and limited population dynamic information collected from the Stewart Island population, it is likely the Stewart Island population has survival and reproductive parameters more like the recolonising Otago population than the declining Auckland Islands population. Such information is critical for determining the impacts of the known direct and indirect human impacts on this small isolated population, which is likely to be important for the survival of the endangered New Zealand sea lion species as a whole.