Using life-history traits of New Zealand sea lions, Auckland Islands to clarify potential causes of decline

Authors


Correspondence

B. Louise Chilvers, Department of Conservation, Aquatic and Threats Unit, PO Box 10420, Wellington 6143, New Zealand. Tel: +64 4471 3073; Fax: +64 4471 1082; Email: lchilvers@doc.govt.nz

Abstract

Annual censuses of New Zealand (NZ) sea lions Phocarctos hookeri at the subantarctic Auckland Islands have indicated a decline in pup production of over 40% during the first decade of the 2000s. With this significant decline and likely decline in the population as a whole, population ecology theory hypothesizes that life-history traits such as reproduction rate, survival or growth should improve, particularly if density-dependency is playing a significant role in the population. This research examined whether changes in NZ sea lion pup production were associated with changes in adult abundance or population life-history traits in an attempt to clarify potential causes of decline. Since 1998/1999, daily surveys of Sandy Bay, Enderby Island, were undertaken during the NZ sea lion breeding season (December–February). These surveys confirm that the number of adults at the breeding area has significantly declined during the period of pup production decline. There was no difference between years in mean pup birth date, but the ratio of pups to females ashore during peak pupping varied significantly. The sex ratio of pups at birth also varied from year to year, but with no significant variation overall. Pup mortality varied significantly only during years of epizootic events (1997/1998, 2001/2002 and 2002/2003). Pup birth mass showed little variation between 2000/2001 and 2006/2007, increasing slightly in the last 3 years of study. Pup mass at 3 weeks, although highly variable, showed no trend during the period of decline. Despite the significant decrease in pup production and breeding animals, not all life-history traits relating to pup mass and survival or female fecundity improved. Research suggests that indirect fishing-related pressures may influence some of these traits and that the NZ sea lion population was unlikely to have been influenced by density-dependent factors or to have been at or near carrying capacity before the decline.

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