June 13, 2024

Distribution and Abundance of California (Zalophus californianus) and Steller (Eumetopias jubatus) Sea Lions in the Inshore Waters of Washington, 2013-2016


Thomas A. Jefferson, Mari A. Smultea, and Eric J. Ward


Document: Article

Abstract: Two species of sea lions occur in the waters of Washington State: the California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) and the Steller sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus). Both species breed elsewhere, but they typically move into Puget Sound and adjacent waters of the Salish Sea from autumn through spring. There is a need for information on their current abundance and seasonal use patterns as both species prey heavily on threatened/endangered stocks of salmon and steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus spp.), and empirical abundance estimates of these species are lacking for inland Washington waters. From 2013 to 2016, we conducted 39,399 km of aerial surveys for marine mammals in this area, sighting 255 groups of sea lions. We used a subset of 7,841 km of effort and 165 sea lion sightings made during surveys in good sighting conditions to estimate in-water abundance using line-transect methods. Historical tagging data collected in Pacific Northwest waters were used to evaluate the proportions of time that each species spent on land and conducting dives, and then to develop correction factors to derive total abundance for both sea lion species, providing the first empirical abundance estimates for these waters. We estimated that between 33 and 442 California sea lions were found in Puget Sound/Hood Canal in different seasons, with nearly 3,000 being found in the broader inland Washington waters in the peak season (spring). Steller sea lions occurred in much smaller numbers, with a peak of 219 animals in Puget Sound/Hood Canal/Strait of Juan de Fuca in autumn (and possibly as many as 600 to 700 in the entire study area). While some estimates suffer from low precision, this study demonstrates that substantial numbers of sea lions use waters of the study area throughout much of the year. Our results provide an important step toward a better understanding of these two species in the inland waters of Washington, as well as their potential effects on protected salmonid prey species.

Key Words: California sea lion, Steller sea lion, management, Puget Sound, San Juan Islands, Strait of Juan de Fuca, Hood Canal, Washington State, line-transect survey, management, population biology

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1578/AM.49.4.2023.366

Page Numbers: 366-381


Jefferson et al. is Open Access: Click here for PDF

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