Kidney failure killed Steller sea lion found dead in Point Roberts

Published on Wed, Oct 26, 2011 by Meg Olson

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Though the animal was found in Point Roberts, I thought Blaine and Birch Bay residents would find this story interesting, too. Steller sea lions call coastal areas from Northern California to British Columbia their home. -JS

An older male Steller sea lion that seemed to have taken up residence at Lighthouse Marine Park in Point Roberts was found dead earlier this month, reportedly due to kidney failure.

After performing a necropsy on the animal, Dr. Michael Etnier with the Whatcom Marine Mammal Stranding Network said the sea lion’s kidneys succumbed to an infection that started in the urinary tract. Etnier said definite results could still be months away, but the evidence pointing to infection was relatively conclusive.

Etnier estimated the animal’s age at somewhere between 12 and 15 years, which is old for a sea lion. The animal most likely lived a bit of rough life, with his body bearing many scars from old wounds, including a healed over .22-caliber rifle slug at the base of its neck. Etnier is positive the bullet had nothing to do with the animal’s death.

Several observers first reported seeing the male Steller sea lion on the beach on Friday, October 7.

“He was going in and out of the water,” said Peter Hamilton, founding director of Lifeforce, a nonprofit ecology organization based in Vancouver, B.C.,  that has a long history observing marine wildlife on the Point. “He appeared to be energetic and his mobility was good.”

Hamilton said the sea lion was thin but appeared to be feeding in the water, where Hamilton said he could see salmon jumping. “I had hoped he’d found a good place to rest and feed here,” he said.

 By the afternoon of Saturday, October 8, the animal was jumping into the water as people or dogs approached, and spending more time in the water.

“He was very alert to people coming near him. At that point I felt it was safe to leave, he wasn’t going to attack people or dogs,” Hamilton said.

Lighthouse Marine Park manager Ben VanBuskirk reported that the animal was spending more and more time on the beach October 9, and by October 10 local observer Renée Coe said the seal lion did not look good and seldom left the beach.

Hamilton said the Whatcom County Marine Mammal Stranding Network and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) contacted him to continue monitoring the sea lion, but when he returned to the Point the morning of October 11 the animal was no longer on the beach. Observers reported no sign of the sea lion until it was found dead on the beach the next morning.

“It seems he took a major turn for the worse from Saturday [October 8] afternoon,” Hamilton said. “We don’t know if he died on shore or died in the water and was washed out and back in.”

Hamilton said some observers reported a lack of mobility in the animal’s rear flippers that could point to a disease that affects the kidneys. There were also reports of shots heard, Hamilton said, but a superficial visual examination of the animal revealed no apparent gunshot wounds.

Steller sea lions are federally protected as an endangered species in the western portion of their range and are threatened in the eastern portion, which includes local waters.

While sea lions are not uncommon off the Point, frequently spotted on the Lily Point buoy and occasionally swimming off Lighthouse Marine Park, Hamilton said he has never seen one “haul out” to rest on local beaches.

“This is the first time they’ve ever been observed on the shore, unless they were dead,” he said. “I often wonder where they’re hauling out.”

Wildlife watchers who spot sea lions or other marine mammals can contact Lifeforce with their information at 604/649-5258. Stranded marine mammals can be reported to the stranding network at 360/966-8845 or by visiting the network's website.


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