AGE-STRUCTURED MODELING REVEALS LONG-TERM DECLINES IN THE NATALITY OF WESTERN STELLER SEA LIONS

Authors


  • Corresponding Editor: D. F. Parkhurst.

Abstract

Since the mid-1970s, the western Steller sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus), inhabiting Alaskan waters from Prince William Sound west through the Aleutian Islands, has declined by over 80%. Changing oceanographic conditions, competition from fishing operations, direct human-related mortality, and predators have been suggested as factors driving the decline, but the indirect and interactive nature of their effects on sea lions have made it difficult to attribute changes in abundance to specific factors. In part, this is because only changes in abundance, not changes in vital rates, are known. To determine how vital rates of the western Steller sea lion have changed during its 28-year decline, we first estimated the changes in Steller sea lion age structure using measurements of animals in aerial photographs taken during population surveys since 1985 in the central Gulf of Alaska (CGOA). We then fit an age-structured model with temporally varying vital rates to the age-structure data and to total population and pup counts. The model fits indicate that birth rate in the CGOA steadily declined from 1976 to 2004. Over the same period, survivorship first dropped severely in the early 1980s, when the population collapsed, and then survivorship steadily recovered. The best-fitting model indicates that in 2004, the birth rate in the central Gulf of Alaska was 36% lower than in the 1970s, while adult and juvenile survivorship were close to or slightly above 1970s levels. These predictions and other model predictions concerning population structure match independent field data from mark–recapture studies and photometric analyses. The dominant eigenvalue for the estimated 2004 Leslie matrix is 1.0014, indicating a stable population. The stability, however, depends on very high adult survival, and the shift in vital rates results in a population that is more sensitive to changes in adult survivorship. Although our modeling analysis focused exclusively on the central Gulf of Alaska, the western Gulf of Alaska and eastern Aleutians show a similar pattern of declining pup fraction with no increase in the juvenile, or pre-breeding, fraction. This suggests that declining birth rate may be a problem for western Steller sea lions across the Gulf of Alaska and into the Aleutian Islands.

Ancillary