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The decline of Steller sea lions Eumetopias jubatus in Alaska: a review of the nutritional stress hypothesis

Authors

  • A. W. TRITES,

    Corresponding author
    1. Marine Mammal Research Unit, Fisheries Centre, University of British Columbia, 2204 Main Mall, Vancouver, B.C., Canada V6T 1Z4
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  • C. P. DONNELLY

    1. Marine Mammal Research Unit, Fisheries Centre, University of British Columbia, 2204 Main Mall, Vancouver, B.C., Canada V6T 1Z4
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A. W. Trites, Email: trites@zoology.ubc.ca

ABSTRACT

1. The decline of Steller sea lions Eumetopias jubatus in the Gulf of Alaska and Aleutian Islands between the late 1970s and 1990s may have been related to reduced availability of suitable prey. Many studies have shown that pinnipeds and other mammals suffering from nutritional stress typically exhibit reduced body size, reduced productivity, high mortality of pups and juveniles, altered blood chemistry and specific behavioural modifications.

2. Morphometric measurements of Steller sea lions through the 1970s and 1980s in Alaska indicate reduced body size. Reduced numbers of pups born and an apparent increase in juvenile mortality rates also appear to be nutritionally based. Blood chemistry analyses have further shown that Steller sea lions in the Gulf of Alaska and Aleutian Islands area exhibited signs of an acute phase reaction, or immune reaction, in response to unidentified physical and/or environmental stress. Behavioural studies during the 1990s have not noted any changes that are indicative of an overall shortage in the quantity of prey available to lactating female sea lions.

3. The data collected in Alaska are consistent with the hypothesis that Steller sea lions in the declining regions were nutritionally compromised because of the relative quality of prey available to them (chronic nutritional stress), rather than because of the overall quantity of fish per se (acute nutritional stress). This is further supported by captive studies that indicate the overall quality of prey that has been available to Steller sea lions in the declining population could compromise the health of Steller sea lions and hinder their recovery.

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