Save the sea lions

Sea lions are top predators in marine environments and therefore sensitive to human induced environmental changes. If we want to save sea lions we must protect their environment at the same time. Therefore sea lions are an important flagship species for marine conservation.

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Page author: Stefan Austermühle

Reviewed by: Sean Minns

Last updated: 2010.06.01

Historic threats to Sea lions “Otaria byronia“:

In Uruguay, an average of 3,260 sea lions, were captured annually between 1963 and 1976.

In Chile, between 1821 and 1822, at least 52,000 sea lions were killed. From 1825 to 1865, US- and British sealers captured great numbers of sea lions in Chilean Patagonia. In 1860, sealing was reinitiated by Chilean national sealers and continued until 1907 when the government temporarily prohibited the hunting of sea lions. In 1976, sealing was reopened, mainly oriented towards sea lion pups. In the seventies, the total capture reached 11,000 pups a year as well as a smaller number of juvenile and adult sea lions, mainly in areas where conflicts existed between fishermen and sea lions.

The commercial capture of sea lions in Argentina decreased from the fifties into the sixties of the last century mainly due to economic reasons. Nevertheless, the high numbers of hunted animals seem to have led to a reduction of 80 to 90% of the countries sea lion population.

In the Falkland Islands, sea lion exploitation started no earlier than 1928, when the Falkland Islands and Dependencies Sealing Company started operating and 40,000 sea lions were killed within 10 years. In 1949, sealing was reinitiated with 3,050 specimens being hunted in four years. Again, in 1962, the capture of 1,500 sea lions was permitted in order to use their fur.

In Peru, historical records exist of the capture of around 800,000 pinnipeds between 1925 and 1946, but the statistics do not differentiate between fur seals and sea lions. In Peru, sealing was prohibited from 1958 to 1962. In 1964 sealing was prohibited again.

Present threats to sea lions “Otaria byronia“:

Tourism – opportunity or threat for sea lion conservation?

Tourism, if badly managed, is a new threat to sea lions. Tourism boats at the Ballestas Islands in Paracas and at Palomino island near Lima are taking their clients too close to the sea lions – sometimes boats are just a few meters away from breeding beaches. This regularly causes the sea lions to panic. As a consequence adult sea lions are rushing in the water and during breeding season there is a real danger that during such stampedes young pups are crushed to death by the panicking adults.

But tourism, if done well, can also be a great way to protect sea lions. It generates jobs and shows that live sea lions are worth more money than dead ones. It helps in raising funds for conservation and provides an opportunity for environmental education. If minimum distances are kept and clients are instructed on how to behave sensibly, tourists can enjoy amazing encounters with sea lions, not only observing them on land, but even swimming or diving with them.

Nature Expeditions, our associated travel operator in Lima, offers such professional marine ecotourism tours, being guided and overseen by Mundo Azuls researchers, to swim and dive with sea lions on Palomino Island near Lima. Sea lions are powerful marine predators that have the capability to seriously injure humans. However, they are also very curious animals and human beings are not on their list of prey. So far there has never been a case of serious aggression towards tourists in Peru.


Nevertheless Nature Expeditions is imposing clear rules on divers and swimmers, to make sure that human behavior will not cause any problems with the sea lions and to guarantee, that both, sea lions and humans, have a great time together. Mundo Azul and Nature Expeditions are aware that some tourism companies in Lima do encourage their clients to swim close to the shoreline of the island. We consider this irresponsible because these tourists unknowingly run the danger of getting smashed against the rocks by the stronger waves coming in from time to time and they also run the danger of triggering a stampede in the sea lion colony.

Nature Expeditions therefore anchores 50-100 meters away from the colony and will ask their clients to stay close to the boat. There will be dozens of sea lions visiting you and therefore there is no need to swim closer to the island. The sea lions visiting will all be females or very young males, so there is no danger for the animals and less chances of problems with tourists as the big bulls will stay away.

sea lions fishing in net

Illegal killing of sea lions: Small scale fisheries

Small scale  fishermen in Peru claim that fur seals and sea lions damage fishing nets and steal captured fish, especially in fisheries with gill nets. Indeed sea lions can be commonly observed to easily jump in and out of nets and feed on the encircled fish. However, wether these kinds of losses are economically significant to fishermen, is disputable. Even though it is known that this kind of interaction mainly occurs with sea lions, fur seals are held responsible too, by the fishermen.

sea lion kill

As a reaction to the supposed competition, artisan fishermen illegally kill sea lions and fur seals by clubbing them to death, poisoning or shooting them, as well as using dynamite.

The Peruvian NGO ORCCAMM analyzed 160 dead sea lions and fur seals found on beaches along the Peruvian coast between January 2002 and March 2004. The found that 61.25% of the specimen had died because of human activity. Sea lions had been the most affected: 40.2 % had been clubbed to death and 21 % were by-catch victims. 35.7 % of fur seals had been shot or clubbed to death.  The beaches south of the capital, Lima, as well as Lagunillas Beach within the National Reserve of Paracas have been the places where most of the killing occurred. 56.43% of the animals found were shown to have wounds from clubs on the head and dorsal muscles. The results clearly showed that not by-catch but intentional illegal killings have the biggest impact on pinnipeds in the near-shore areas.

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Illegal killing of sea lions: conflicts with Chilean aquaculture

In Chile, aquaculture companies are actively involved in illegal killings of sea lions. These killings were massive during the eighties, when the salmon industry started developing massively in Chile. According to Biologist Jorge Oporto from Corporación Terra Australis, between 5,000 and 6,000 sea lions were killed during this period. Sea lions had been shot, and poisoned as well. According to Oporto, the killing continues and the NGO has information that the floating operation platforms of several companies are full of dead sea lions, in order to avoid them being found on the beach, like for example, the salmon plant of Cerro Blanco, Palena.

In January 2005, locals from the town of Panitao Bajo, near Port Montt in the sector of Chinquihue, denounced shootings from the floating salmon platforms and dead sea lions on the beach. Moreover, the floating bodies of dead sea lions  were observed in January 2005 in the sector “Isla Los Curas” in front of the beach resort of Chinquihue. They had rope coils tied around their bodies, apparently an intent to sink the bodies in order to avoid discovery. Tourism operators from the area of Aysén, Chile indicated in March 2005 that local officials were investigating the deaths of more than 800 Sea lions in the region of the port of Cisne. They claimed that “this massive killing has been going on for more than 10 years, resulting in the total elimination of four local sea lion colonies, each one with approximately 160 specimens.”

Illegal killing of sea lions: aphrodisiacs for the Asian market

The killing of sea lions and fur seals in order to sell their genitals as aphrodisiacs for the Asian market of traditional medicines is another growing threat. 8.57% of the cases of dead, stranded Sea lions analyzed by ORCCAMM (see above) had their genitals cut off. Between September and October 2002, one of the biggest illegal killings of sea lions to have happened in recent years in Peru took place  on San Gallan Island in the National Reserve of Paracas. Fishermen killed 147 sea lions, only to cut off their genitals and leave the rest of the bodies unused.

The demand for traditional medicines makes this kind of illegal killing an international problem. In 2005, for example, 35 sea lions were killed on the Island of San Cristóbal, one of the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador, in order to extract their genitals.

Illegal killing of sea lions: for fishing bait

Finally, it is known to be a common practice by fishermen to kill sea lions and use their meat as bait in southern Chile, as well as in Peru for the capture of chocolate rock shell (Thais chocolata).

By-catch of sea lions

Small scale driftnets cause sea lion and fur seal deaths when placed in areas used by the species. As yet the magnitude of these losses are unknown.

Conflicts with industrial fisheries

The development of the industrial fisheries in Peru endangers the sustainability of all fisheries and leads to over-fishing of natural resources. In the case of Peru, the fish meal industry fishes anchovies, the main prey of sea lions and fur seals. As a consequence, population size (additionally impacted by natural El Niño events), is dwindling.

While historically, populations could recover fast from El Niño events because of the presence of great volume of anchovies, nowadays recuperation is not possible as the fishmeal industries catches much of the natural prey and causes a state of permanent scarcity of food, leading to ongoing reduction of the pinniped populations. Fish meal industries nowadays are the biggest threat to the survival of pinnipeds, as well as other marine species in Peru.

sea lion strangled

Chemical contamination and trash

Pollution affects sea lion DNA in Argentina – Scientists from Argentina and Italy have discovered that South American sea lions at the port of Mar del Plata, Argentina, have been so affected by hydrocarbons and heavy metals that their DNA is being altered. The research, which was carried out on 84 sea lions at the port, also found them to be suffering from various sicknesses, such as skin infections, conjunctivitis, rhinitis and alopecia. Scientists fear that the genetic damage could be transmitted to the sea lions’ offspring with the resultant possibility of mutations.

Another reason for the death of pinniped specimens is the growing contamination of the oceans with plastic trash. Animals become entangled in plastic bags, ghost nets and other trash floating in the water, like the right hand sea lion in the picture and many strangle themselves to death or loose extremities, causing deadly infections. Males are most affected by this problem due to the great quantity of thick fur that does not allow the plastic to be removed from the neck, once entangled. On a global scale it is estimated that around 100.000 pinnipeds (30.000 of them sea lions) die each year because of the ingestion of trash or because of becoming entangled in trash

Habitat loss and coastal urbanization

Another threat to pinnipeds is the growing human presence along the Peruvian coast, displacing them from their natural breeding grounds, not only on land but also on the islands. Nowadays, more than 70 % of the Peruvian population lives along the coast, creating not only physical disturbances but also great amounts of marine contamination through the expulsion of domestic and industrial sewage. In Peru, sea lions and fur seals have already abandoned many reproduction sites on the main land. Nowadays, up to 95% of the population live in protected areas and on the guano islands.

Save the sea lions


Mundo Azul and several other national and international conservation groups have been lobbying for more than nine years for the declaration of the marine protected area “National Reserve Guano Islands” (Reserva Nacional Islas y Puntas Guaneras). The guano islands are home to most of the fur seal breeding colonies. Finally on the 30th of December 2009 the Peruvian Government officially declared the area a national reserve. Mundo Azuls future work will be to support the Peruvian Government and all other interested parties in the sustainable management of the marine protected area.

The creation of this marine protected area was a first and important step towards better protection of sea lions in Peru. However more must be done:

  • Industrial fisheries must be persuaded to downsize in order to create a sustainable future for local fisheries and create more food available for sea lions.
  • Small scale fishermen must be convinced to stop killing sea lions and stop demanding their culling. In order to reach this, the artisan fishermen associations in Peru, such as the FIUPAP must be convinced to stop their defamation against sea lions and fur seals. Instead they must be encouraged to promote the conservation of marine mammals. We feel sea lions should not be used as scapegoats for human overfishing. They are not the reason for diminishing fish catches in Peru.
  • By-catch and mortality due to plastic garbage must be reduced.
  • Sea lions are an important tourism attraction and coastal tourism involving local fishermen must be promoted as an economic alternative for local coastal communities.
  • The Peruvian Government must seriously evaluate the real damage caused by sea lions to fishing nets and a viable system of compensation payments for fishermen must be put in place.

Marine ecotourism is a great way to help conserve sea lions. Take a tour and swim or dive with sea lions in Peru with our associated travel operator Nature Expeditions.

You can also become a conservation volunteer with Mundo Azul


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Page author: Stefan Austermühle




Related links:

Dive and swim with sea lions

Natural history of sea lions

Natural history of fur seals

Save the fur seals

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