The role of Steller sea lions in a large population decline of harbor seals



We provide the first direct evidence that Steller sea lions will prey on harbor seals. Direct observations of predation on marine mammals at sea are rare, but when observed rates of predation are extrapolated, predation mortality may be found to be significant. From 1992 to 2002, harbor seals in Glacier Bay declined steeply, from 6,200 to 2,500 (∼65%). After documenting that Steller sea lions were preying on seals in Glacier Bay, we investigated increased predation by sea lions as a potential explanation for the large decline. In five independent data sets spanning 21–25 yr and including 14,308 d of observations, 13 predation events were recorded. We conducted a fine-scale analysis for an intensively studied haul-out (Spider Island) and a broader analysis of all of Glacier Bay. At Spider Island, estimated predation by sea lions increased and could account for the entirety of annual pup production in 5 of 8 yr since 1995. The predation rate, however, was not proportional to the number of predators. Predation by Steller sea lions is a new source of mortality that contributed to the seal declines; however, life history modeling indicates that it is unlikely that sea lion predation is the sole factor responsible for the large declines.