Scientists, Volunteers Work to Disentangle Pinnipeds

seal entangled in fish net
A sea lion entangled in fish net. Photo: NOAA Fisheries.

In celebration of International Seal Day in late March, NOAA Fisheries highlighted the work of a team of dedicated scientists and volunteers to “lose the loop” and help entangled seals, sea lions and walrus, inquisitive animals also known as pinnipeds. Their curiosity makes them vulnerable to becoming entangled in loop-shaped marine debris such as packing ands and abandoned fish nets, snagged by fishing hooks and entangled in other garbage in the marine ecosystem.

In 2009, a group of marine mammal scientists in the United States decided to form the Pinniped Entanglement Group, with a focus on prevention of entanglements that can lead to serious injuries and even death. This is a worldwide problem that can be prevented by finding better solutions to dispose of trash and fishing gear.

During a three-week survey in Alaska in 2000, scientists from NOAA and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game identified over 50 Steller sea lions with severe entanglements, plus an increase in northern fur seal entanglements around the Pribilof Islands. The group uses a two-pronged approach of education and rescue, and in the process has created a global network of dedicated scientists, educators and volunteers who work to prevent seals and sea lions from getting entangled and rescuing them whenever possible.

Founding members include Kim Raum-Suryan, the NOAA Alaska region’s marine mammal specialist who serves as coordinator. Others include Mike Williams, a NOAA biologist and the northern fur seal program manager on the Pribilof Islands, who has worked on entanglements for nearly 40 years. Kate Savage is a veterinarian and biologist and has been integral in remotely sedating Steller sea lions.

Lauri Jemison of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game leads all Steller sea lion disentanglement response trips. The group is now a worldwide community with 144 members in 18 countries, which works to raise awareness on disentanglement using new tools and techniques like remote sedation, so responders can safely intervene for animals previously inaccessible.