“Charismatic megafauna,” my professor said with disdain. “That’s all you guys ever want to talk about.” I exchanged knowing glances with my classmates as we settled in for a rant about the popularity of flashy, impressive species.
It was the last day of my vertebrate biology class, and I was thrilled to finally hear about my favorite, the mammals. I’d endured hardships to get to this point. First were the slimy, less-than-appealing hagfish. From there I learned about cartilaginous fish, bony fish, fish that bore live young, fish with bizarre mating rituals. Things started to pick up with the amphibians and reptiles, and the birds were charming, but my focus remained steadily on the mammals.
To my bitter disappointment, mammals were barely given an hour of discussion. “If you want to learn about mammals, take a mammology class,” was my professor’s explanation for skimming over Class Mammalia.
Disheartened, I shuffled home to comfort myself with pictures of beluga whales and wallabies on Google Images. Despite what my professor said, I think it’s fairly normal to be captivated by animals with fur and big, glossy eyes. It’s no coincidence that the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) chose a cuddly giant panda as its figurehead. I admit, the iconic, lonely polar bear stranded on a melting iceberg tugs at my heart. It’s hard to stand idly by when these animals are at risk or in pain, and that’s probably why Kim Raum-Suryan and her Steller sea lion research arrested my attention.
“I’ve been interested in animals since I was a kid,” Raum-Suryan said with a laugh. A kindred spirit, evidently.
In the 1990s, Raum-Suryan, a research assistant with Dr. Markus Horning at OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute, was working for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, making observations on Steller sea lions in order to understand the reason for their declining populations. Steller sea lions were listed as a threatened species in 1990, and a subpopulation became endangered in 1997.
Traveling by research vessel, Raum-Suryan and her colleagues navigated the Alaskan waters in search of sea lion clusters, collecting blood samples and taking pictures to learn more about the giant pinnipeds. As Raum-Suryan gathered more sea lion photographs, she was disturbed to notice how many of the sea lions were adorned with tight rubber or plastic loops around their necks. These loops, a symptom of litter in the ocean, cut deeply into the animals’ flesh, causing painful wounds that could result in death through strangulation or infection.
In 2000, Raum-Suryan started taking photographs of the entangled Steller sea lions and decided to survey how many sea lions were in similar situations. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s data set spans eleven years in Alaska and Raum-Suryan’s data set spans five years in Oregon. Off the coast of Oregon alone, she has observed 72 entangled Steller sea lions, and with the popular literature citing only one or two occurrences a year, the difference is significant.
“The number was definitely higher than we were expecting, and that’s just including the animals we actually see,” Raum-Suryan said. “So we’re dealing with the low estimate because it’s very likely that many [entangled] animals die before they ever come to shore.”
These entangled sea lions, with their blubbery bodies and whiskery faces, prompted a movement in Newport, Ore. last year. Several Oregon organizations, including the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association and OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute, funded and installed a giant capture cage at Port Dock 1 where California sea lions love to “haul out” and relax before plunging into the ocean for their next meal. The capture cage floats near the docks with its doors open, providing an inviting place for the sea lions to hang out. Ideally, when an entangled sea lion enters the cage, the doors are then shut and the sea lion can be safely tranquilized and disentangled.
Naturally, I love this idea. But I have a feeling that people like my vertebrate biology professor would call into question the necessity of building such a device, and he may have a point. While thousands of animals mark the endangered species list, it’s admittedly easier to relate to the plight of the sea lions than to the equally imperiled corals that face issues of their own.
Cuddle Up to Coral
The corals are undoubtedly important. Their role in the marine ecosystem is foundational, and it’s frightening to think what might happen if they disappear. Still, people flock to animals like sea lions, and that will always be the case. It’s much more fun to watch sea lions frolic than corals filter-feed. The WWF giant panda is there for a reason – it’s meant to engage a broader audience.
If someone cares about sea lions, they must care about the entire marine ecosystem by default. The biological world is one of connections where many organisms are dependent on each other for survival. A wild California sea lion thrives only in a healthy environment, which means we need to conserve the fish, water and air quality that sea lions need to live. Without the smaller, less obvious members of the marine community, there can be no sea lions. If people grasp that concept, they may understand why conservation is so important.
And it all starts with a bunch of sea lions sprawling out on the docks. Maybe those “charismatic megafauna” aren’t so bad after all.
See a news release from Oregon Sea Grant about Kim Raum-Suryan’s research on Steller sea lions.