- Listed as ‘Endangered’ globally (IUCN Red List)
- Listed as ‘Endangered’ in Australia (EPBC Act)
- Listed as ‘Vulnerable” in South Australia (National Parks and Wildlife Act)
- Listed as ‘Vulnerable’ in Western Australia (Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016)
Australian sea lions are a type of pinniped (seals, sea lions and walruses) that are only found on our shores.
- South Australia (85%) and Western Australia Coastlines (15%)
- Kangaroo Island in South Australia is a popular destination for tourists see Australian sea lions
Historically hunted for their fur, Australian sea lion numbers have fallen by over 60% in four decades and are at such low levels that in 2021 the species was re-assessed and listed from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘endangered’ under Australian law.
Quick Facts about Australian Sea Lions
- Sea lions mostly feed from the sea floor, catching creatures such as octopus, sharks, rock lobster, cuttlefish and small rays.
- Sea lions typically live for 17 to 25 years, only reaching breeding maturity at 12 years old.
- Breeding cycles happen only once every 18 months and female will only breed at the site where they were born.
- Only 30% of pups from each breeding season survive to maturity.
- Each sea lion colony is genetically distinct from neighbouring colonies and other populations.
- The death of even a single female can have a negative impact on a colony’s survival, especially if the colony has a very low population.
- The population of sea lions is around 12,000, however, it’s estimated there are only 6500 mature individuals, with the population continuing to decrease.
Threats to Australian Sea Lions
Currently, the biggest threat to Australia sea lion colonies are gillnets, which are invisible, thin mesh nets suspended in the water. Gillnets are used by commercial fisheries to capture sharks, predominantly for the ‘flake’ and chip market in Australia. However, Australian sea lions also get snagged in the mesh of gillnets and drown. The only solution to accidental gillnet deaths and other fishery-related deaths of sea lions is to close the areas where sea lions forage for food out at sea, and prevent fishing with gillnets in those areas.
South Australian Case Study
The distribution of Australia sea lion colonies in SA overlaps with a fishery managed by the Federal Government agency, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA). Due to the close proximity between the fishery and sea lion colonies, fishing was killing a high number of sea lions.
In 2010, scientists published a report that found up to 374 Australia sea lions were killed in the fishery every 18 months. This report also indicated that this rate of fishery-induced deaths was too high for the sea lion populations to withstand – bringing Australian sea lions closer to extinction. In addition, commercial fishers were not reporting how many sea lions were being killed to AFMA, so the true cost of fishing to the species was hidden.
AMCS worked with the government, scientists and the fishing industry to come up with a solution to ensure sea lion colonies were protected, only brought about by the support of the Australian public.
The areas of sea directly around sea lion breeding colonies are closed to gillnet fishing, and now, every fishing boat that fishes anywhere near sea lion colonies has to have cameras on board to monitor what is being caught. This means that if a sea lion gets killed, it now gets reported to AFMA. And when a sea lion does get killed, further areas are closed to all gillnet fishing to ensure sea lion colonies do not decline even further.
Subsequently, a paper published in 2022 showed that this management strategy has had significant immediate impacts, with an estimated 98% reduction in sea lion bycatch mortality in the gillnet fishery, and an apparent stabilization of the decline in sea lion pup abundances at some impacted breeding sites.
This means that through the activity of AMCS, our wonderful supporters and other environmental organisations, hundreds of vulnerable Australian sea lions have been protected from drowning in this fishery.
Western Australian Case Study
Similarly to SA, a shark fishery in WA overlaps with Australian sea lion colonies around the WA coastlines. The fishery uses gillnets to target sandbar, whiskery and dusky sharks. But unlike SA, there is even less known about the sea lion populations in WA. The colonies are smaller, and are therefore at even more risk from fishing deaths. It is estimated that three of the colonies have less than 10 females.
Fishing boats in the SA fishery are subject to 100% observer coverage – so sea lion deaths are reported. By contrast, observer coverage in the WA fishery is currently non-existent. Although fishers have reported low levels of interaction with Australian sea lions, it is hard to have confidence these are a true indication of the real numbers of deaths. Not only is the WA Australian sea lion population likely to be more at risk than in SA, the regulation and monitoring of interactions is far worse.
The WA Government has committed to protecting the waters around Australian sea lion colonies in Western Australia, through establishing protection zones in 2018. AMCS is working with the government and the fishery managers to ensure the protection zones are large enough to properly protect the species and that baseline estimates of the population are urgently published. Video monitoring of the fishery is also essential to ensure that all sea lion deaths are recorded, with a trial due to get underway in 2023.
- Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (2021) ‘EPBC List of Threatened Fauna.’ Available at https://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/sprat/public/publicthreatenedlist.pl#fishes_endangered
- Goldsworthy, S.D (2015) Neophoca Cinerea. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2015-2.RLTS.T14549A45228341.en
- Government of South Australia (2014) ‘Australian Sea Lions’ Available at https://www.sealbay.sa.gov.au/australian-sea-lion/frequently-asked-questions
- Goldsworthy, S.D (2020) Australian sea lion listing assessment. Report to the Department for Environment and Water, Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. South Australian Research and Development Institute (Aquatic Sciences), Adelaide. SARDI Publication No. F2020/000131-1. SARDI Research Report Series No. 1056. Available at https://pir.sa.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/360588/Australian_sea_lion_listing_assessment._Report_to_the_Department_for_Environment_and_Water,_Department_of_Agriculture,_Water_and_the_Environment.pdf
- Goldsworthy SD, Page B, Shaughnessy PD, Linnane A (2010) Mitigating Seal Interactions in the SRLF and the Gillnet Sector SESSF in South Australia. SARDI Research Report Series 405, 213. https://www.bycatch.org/articles/mitigating-seal-interactions-srlf-and-gillnet-sector-sessf-south-australia-0
- Senate Hansard, Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021, 4 May 2021, via http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au
- Goldsworthy Simon D., Page Brad, Hamer Derek J., Lowther Andrew D., Shaughnessy Peter D., Hindell Mark A., Burch Paul, Costa Daniel P., Fowler Shannon L., Peters Kristian, McIntosh Rebecca R., Bailleul Frederic, Mackay Alice I., Kirkwood Roger, Holman Dirk, Bryars Simon (2022) Assessment of Australian Sea Lion Bycatch Mortality in a Gillnet Fishery, and Implementation and Evaluation of an Effective Mitigation Strategy. Frontiers in Marine Science https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2022.799102