- UNESCO-IOC Register of Marine Organisms
These sea lions inhabit the subantarctic islands of New Zealand, between latitudes 48 and 53 degrees S. Their population distribution is centered on the Auckland Islands.
Biogeographic Regions: oceanic islands (Native ); pacific ocean (Native )
New Zealand sea lion pups are born covered with thick, dark hair. It is unknown when they lose this natal coat. Adult males become dark blackish-brown with a well-developed mane reaching to their shoulders. Females have lighter coloration, generally buffy or grey with a lighter ventral side. They may have darker pigmentation around their flippers and muzzle. There is marked sexual dimorphism, also, in size of males and females. Males reach a maximum length of up to 350 cm, while females reach a maximum length of up to 200 cm. Males may weigh as much as 410 kg and females as much as 230 kg.
Dental formula is usually I 3/2, C 1/1, cheekteeth 6/5.
Range mass: 136 to 410 kg.
Average mass: 0.273 kg.
Habitat and Ecology
Males become sexually mature at the age of 5 years. The age of maturity for females is 3-4 years. Gestation lasts 12 months. Pup mortality at the end of one year is about 35%. Males live at least 23 years and females to at least 26 years (Reijnders et al 1993, Childerhouse 2007). The average age of reproductive females is 10.75 yrs (Childerhouse 2007).
The breeding season for the New Zealand Sea Lion begins in late November when adult males return and establish themselves on territories through displays, vocalizing, and fighting. Adult females arrive in early December and give birth on average within 2.1 days after returning to the rookery (Chilvers et al. 2006). Males may have as many as 25 females within their territories. The bulls are frequently challenged by newly arriving males and neighbors, and turn-over of males is a regular occurrence. Many territorial bulls depart in mid-January with the end of the pupping period (Robertson et al. 2005).
The onset of estrous occurs 7-10 days after a female gives birth. Prior to this, the mother continuously attends her newborn pup. Following mating, females begin a phase of short foraging trips followed by pup attendance, typical of many otariids. Foraging trips average 2.7 days and are followed by 1.5 days of pup attendance and feeding ashore (Chilvers et al 2005). Also typical of many otariids, pups gather into groups while their mothers are away. Females and pups recognize each other through vocalizations and scent, and a small percentage of females will allow additional pups to nurse along with their own pup, which is unusual behavior for a pinniped. Pups are weaned at approximately 10 months. The primary causes of pup deaths within their first two months of life are trauma (35%), bacterial infections (24%), hookworm infection (13%), starvation (13%), and stillbirth (4%) (Castinel et al. 2007). Adult males are a significant source of mortality to pups, occasionally killing them outright and also through incidents of cannibalism. Pups are also trampled and killed by adult males challenging other males during territorial disputes.
New Zealand Sea Lions do not appear to be migratory, although they disperse widely over their range during the non-breeding season (Robertson et al. 2005). Some animals can be found at the major rookeries and haul-outs year-round. At sea they are active divers that forage on both benthic and pelagic prey. Mean dives for female New Zealand Sea Lions are to 129 m and mean dive duration is 3.9 minutes. Maximum dive depths are over 600 m and dives have been recorded to last as long as 14.5 minutes (Chilvers et al. 2006a).
New Zealand Sea Lions take a wide variety of vertebrate and invertebrate prey. Frequently-taken species include: opalfish, octopus, munida, hoki, oblique-banded rattail fish, salps, squid and crustaceans. Prey is taken in both benthic and pelagic habitats. Antarctic, Subantarctic, and New Zealand Fur Seals are taken as prey by adult male sea lions. Penguins and sea lion pups are also occasionally taken.
Predators include sharks, Leopard Seals, and presumably Killer Whales. Pups are also cannibalized by adult males of their own species.
New Zealand sea lions inhabit the sandy beaches of New Zealand and its surrounding islands. The pups explore freshwater creeks and pools behind the beach for about their first six months, until their mothers introduce them to the sea. When not in the sea or on the beach, the sea lions can be found resting deep in the forest or on the tops of grass covered cliffs.
Aquatic Biomes: coastal
The New Zealand sea lions feed on octopus, small fish, crabs, mussels, and penguins. They swallow pebbles (gastroliths) to aid in digestion. Their intestines may contain numerous gastroliths of irregular shapes. They vomit these gastroliths, as many as 20 at a time, along with squid tentacles and small fish. These sea lions will not leave their territory to feed during the breeding season. They have learned to follow fishing vessels and take advantage of discarded or escaped fish.
Life History and Behavior
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Adult males flock to breeding beaches between October and early November in order to claim their territories. Pregant females arrive one month later. Cows come into estrus six to seven days after giving birth and matings take place from mid December to mid January. Most copulations take place on the sandy beach. Copulation ends when the cow bites at the throat of the bull.
All births take place on the beach. Most births produce only one pup. The pup is nursed by its mother for about a year. Females produce their first pup around age four. Males become sexually mature around age five, but they do not mate until they are around eight years of age.
Average birth mass: 7000 g.
Average gestation period: 365 days.
Average number of offspring: 1.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
Sex: male: 2191 days.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Phocarctos hookeri
Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Phocarctos hookeri
Public Records: 2
Specimens with Barcodes: 2
Species With Barcodes: 1
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
IUCN Evaluation of the New Zealand Sea Lion, Phocarctos hookeri
Prepared by the Pinniped Specialist Group
A. Population reduction Declines measured over the longer of 10 years or 3 generations
A1 CR > 90%; EN > 70%; VU > 50%
Al. Population reduction observed, estimated, inferred, or suspected in the past where the causes of the reduction are clearly reversible AND understood AND have ceased, based on and specifying any of the following:
(a) direct observation
(b) an index of abundance appropriate to the taxon
(c) a decline in area of occupancy (AOO), extent of occurrence (EOO) and/or habitat quality
(d) actual or potential levels of exploitation
(e) effects of introduced taxa, hybridization, pathogens, pollutants, competitors or parasites.
Pup production has declined at the Auckland Island (where 86% of the population breed) by 31% in the period 1997/98 to 2005/06. For the four years prior to this, pup production had increased by about 20% in the same region. Overall pup production has decreased by 17% between 1994/95 and 2005/06 at the Auckland Islands. Regular estimates of pup production prior to the mid 1990s are only available for one of the Auckland Islands (Enderby Island; where about 20% of the population breed) and production numbers at this site show no statistical trend since about 1980. Data from Campbell Island (where almost all of the remaining 14% of the population breed) is too intermittent and of insufficient precision to derive meaningful trends. The mean age of reproduction of female New Zealand Sea Lions is 10.75 yrs, with some females giving birth at 3 yrs and living as long as 27 yrs. Causes of the decrease in pup production since 1997 are not clear, but may be related to the scale of fishery by-catch or three unusual mortality events that resulted in very high pup mortality.
A2, A3 & A4 CR > 80%; EN > 50%; VU > 30%
A2. Population reduction observed, estimated, inferred, or suspected in the past where the causes of reduction may not have ceased OR may not be understood OR may not be reversible, based on (a) to (e) under A1.
Fishery by-catch of an estimated 1-2% of adult female New Zealand Sea Lions continues in association with the New Zealand squid trawl fishery. The recent, unusual mortality events have been diagnosed to have resulted from bacterial infections, but the underlying reason for their current frequency and scale of effect of not known, nor their potential for future epidemics.
A3. Population reduction projected or suspected to be met in the future (up to a maximum of 100 years) based on (b) to (e) under A1.
If pup production since 1997 is primarily driven by by-catch and disease events, and these continue at current rates (mean of 4.1% decline in pup production since 1997), and we assume a three generation period of 30 yrs, then a decline of >70% will have occurred by 2027. This would qualify the species for EN under A3.
A4. An observed, estimated, inferred, projected or suspected population reduction (up to a maximum of 100 years) where the time period must include both the past and the future, and where the causes of reduction may not have ceased OR may not be understood OR may not be reversible, based on (a) to (e) under A1.
If the rates of population decline since 1997 are less dependent upon the by-catch and epidemics (or these decline), and future rates of change average those prior to 1997, then the current dramatic decrease may be arrested and longer term trends may be <30% over 3 generations.
B. Geographic range in the form of either B1 (extent of occurrence) AND/OR B2 (area of occupancy)
B1. Extent of occurrence (EOO): CR < 100 km²; EN < 5,000 km²; VU < 20,000 km²
The EOO is > 20,000 km².
B2. Area of occupancy (AOO): CR < 10 km²; EN < 500 km²; VU < 2,000 km²
The AOO is > 2,000 km².
AND at least 2 of the following:
(a) Severely fragmented, OR number of locations: CR = 1; EN < 5; VU < 10
(b) Continuing decline in any of: (i) extent of occurrence; (ii) area of occupancy; (iii) area, extent and/or quality of habitat; (iv) number of locations or subpopulations; (v) number of mature individuals.
(c) Extreme fluctuations in any of: (i) extent of occurrence; (ii) area of occupancy; (iii) number of locations or subpopulations; (iv) number of mature individuals.
C. Small population size and decline
Number of mature individuals: CR < 250; EN < 2,500; VU < 10,000
The number of mature individuals may be < 10,000, given that total population size (which included the juvenile cohorts) was estimated to be 11,700 and 12,500 respectively in 1994/95 and 1995/96, at a time when pup production was about 17% greater than the most recent 2005/06 estimate. When scaled down to current pup production sizes (9,700 and 10,400 respectively) and juvenile cohorts are removed, then the number of mature individuals is likely to be <10,000.
AND either C1 or C2:
C1. An estimated continuing decline of at least: CR = 25% in 3 years or 1 generation; EN = 20% in 5 years or 2 generations; VU = 10% in 10 years or 3 generations (up to a max. of 100 years in future)
Between 2000-2005 pup production at the Auckland Islands decreased by about 27%.
C2. A continuing decline AND (a) and/or (b):
(a i) Number of mature individuals in each subpopulation: CR < 50; EN < 250; VU < 1,000
(a ii) % individuals in one subpopulation: CR = 90-100%; EN = 95-100%; VU = 100%
(b) Extreme fluctuations in the number of mature individuals.
D. Very small or restricted population
Number of mature individuals: CR < 50; EN < 250; VU < 1,000 AND/OR restricted area of occupancy typically: AOO < 20 km² or number of locations < 5
Does not apply.
E. Quantitative analysis
Indicating the probability of extinction in the wild to be: Indicating the probability of extinction in the wild to be: CR > 50% in 10 years or 3 generations (100 years max.); EN > 20% in 20 years or 5 generations (100 years max.); VU > 10% in 100 years
There has been no quantitative analysis of the probability of extinction.
Listing recommendation : The New Zealand Sea Lion has a relatively small population (<10,000 mature individuals) and a limited distribution. Most reproduction is restricted to a very few sites. The best population trend data (for pup production) are from 1994. Estimates prior to this are less reliable, and include a smaller proportion of the whole population. There has been a marked (30%) decline in pup production in the last 10 years, at some of the major rookeries. The reason for the decline is not clear, but is likely to be a combination of on-going fisheries by-catch of adult females and a series of bacterial disease outbreaks. New Zealand Sea Lions qualify globally as Vulnerable (VU) under criterion A3(b). But, given the seeming increase in incidence and severity of disease outbreaks, and the EN (Endangered) status of some local populations, this species should be reviewed again within a decade.
- 1996Vulnerable(Baillie and Groombridge 1996)
- 1994Vulnerable(Groombridge 1994)
There are, at most, between 3000 and 4000 New Zealand sea lions in existence. They were abundant at their time of discovery in 1806, but their numbers quickly diminished. They were exploited by settlers and shipwrecked sailors for their hides and oil. Although they have been protected by law since 1894, their numbers have remained unchanged in 70 years.
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: vulnerable
New Zealand Sea Lions have a highly restricted distribution, a small population, and most of the breeding activity is concentrated in two island groups in New Zealand's sub-Antarctic. This combination makes them vulnerable to disease outbreaks, environmental change, and human activities.
Commercial squid fishing near the two largest rookeries reported their first sea lion bycatch mortalities in 1978. In 1982, the fishery was moved at least 12 nautical miles away from the islands. However, this did not end mortality which from 1988 to 2007 ranged from 17-132 seals taken annually (Wilkinson et al. 2003, Chilvers 2008). Apart from direct mortality there is also the potential for prey competition and habitat modification from the fishing industry in the habitat of the New Zealand Sea Lion's breeding areas. Tourism at mainland sites and remote subantarctic islands can cause disruption to haul-out patterns and breeding activities.
Epizootic disease outbreaks at the Auckland Islands in 1998, 2002 and 2003 led to more than 50%, 33% and 21% early pup mortality respectively, and also led to mortalities of an unknown number of animals from other age classes during 1998. The source of the suspected bacterial agent and cause of the outbreak and subsequent mortality for the 1998 outbreak is unknown, however, the 2002 and 2003 outbreaks have been identified as cause by Klebsiella pneumoniae (Castinel et al. 2007).
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Economic Importance for Humans: Positive
New Zealand sea lions once provided man with hides, meat, and oil.
New Zealand sea lion
The New Zealand sea lion (Phocarctos hookeri), also known as Hooker's sea lion, and whakahao in Māori, is a species of sea lion that primarily breeds on New Zealand's subantarctic Auckland and Campbell Islands and to some extent around the coast of New Zealand's South and Stewart Islands.
Recent DNA information indicates the New Zealand sea lion is a lineage previously restricted to subantarctic regions. Somewhere between 1300 and 1500 AD a genetically distinct mainland lineage did not survive hunting by the first human settlers and the subantarctic lineage has since then gradually filled the ecological niche.
The New Zealand sea lion is probably the world's rarest sea lion and numbers around 10,000.
On the Auckland Islands there are three functioning rookeries. Most sea lions are born on Dundas Island. There is a smaller rookery at Sandy Bay on Enderby Island and the smallest rookery is on Figure of Eight Island. An even smaller rookery at South East Point on Auckland Island appears to now have been abandoned. The other major breeding area is the Campbell Islands.
Characteristics and taxonomy
New Zealand sea lions, like all otariids, have marked sexual dimorphism. Adult males are 240–350 cm long and weigh 320–450 kg and adult females are 180–200 cm long and weigh 90–165 kg. At birth, pups are 70–100 cm long and weigh 7–8 kg; the natal pelage is a thick coat of dark brown hair that becomes dark gray with cream markings on the top of the head, nose, tail and at the base of the flippers. Adult females' coats vary from buff to creamy gray with darker pigmentation around the muzzle and the flippers. Adult males are blackish-brown with a well-developed black mane of coarse hair reaching the shoulders.
There was thought to be a population of around 15,000 in the mid-1990s. Estimates (based on the number of pups born) were about 9,000 for 2008.
In 2010 the Department of Conservation - responsible for marine mammal conservation - changed the New Zealand Threat Classification System ranking from Nationally Endangered to Nationally Critical.
The Department of Conservation estimates that Auckland Islands' sea lions, nearly 80 per cent of the total, could be functionally extinct by 2035. However the New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries considers research on which this prediction is based is low quality and ‘should not be used in management decisions.’
The January 2013 sea lion pup production count on the Auckland Islands showed the number of pups born on the islands has risen to 1931, from the 2012 figure of 1684. The 2013 number is the highest in five years. Dead pups are also counted, since the annual pup count is used to assess the population of breeding females, but not future births when the counted pups mature.
The Campbell Islands population 'appears to be increasing slowly' and births here comprise about 20 per cent of the national total. In August 2013 the seasonal southern blue whiting fleet captured 21 male sea lions in fishing grounds more than 100 kilometres off the Campbell Islands. Four were released alive. There were no captures reported by government observers the year before. The government responded to the captures by requesting the vessels trial sea lion exclusion devices (SLEDs) to reduce this by-catch.
For the first time in 150 years sea lions began breeding again on the South Island coast in 1994, on the Otago Peninsula. The Otago sea lion population is currently small but estimated to reach 1000 animals by 2044, leading to issues of ‘marine protected areas, local fishing quotas and numbers management.’ 
Other small populations of breeding sea lions have recently begun to establish in various parts of the Stewart Island coastline and sea lions have been observed on the Catlins coast south of the Clutha River.
In the 1990s, as the volume of squid fishing round the Auckland Islands increased, numbers of sea lions were captured as bycatch and drowned in the squid trawl nets. The government uses a modeling system to set a fishing related mortality limit (FRML) each year. If the limit is predicted to be exceeded, the Minister of Primary Industries may close the fishery. The last time the FRML was exceeded was in 2000, though there were a number of closures in the 1990s.
The estimated (as different from reported) captures in the 2014 season were 11.58 per cent of the FRML.
In late February 2013 the first observed sea lion mortalities in the Auckland Island squid fleet in three years occurred. Pre-adult sea lions slipped through the grid at the opening of the net into its cod end. The 23 cm grid aperture is designed to hold adult sea lions in the SLED and yet still allow squid to pass into the net. In 2013 one adult female was taken as incidental bycatch. In the concluded 2014 season two sea lions were reported captured in the fishery.
The proportion of vessels in the Auckland Island squid fishery with government observers has increased over the years, providing independent reports of bycatch based on observation rather than computer model estimates. In the 2014 season the observers' coverage was of 84 per cent of tows.
Sea lion escape devices
In 2001, the sea lion exclusion device (SLED) was introduced into the Auckland Island squid fishery to reduce sea lion bycatch. Since 2007, all vessels in the Auckland Islands fishery have been equipped with SLEDS.
Some scientists still do not believe sea lions survive the interaction with a SLED, though the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) believes the direct effect of fishing-related mortality on the sea lion population is minimal. MPI has concluded that a sea lion has an 85 per cent change of escaping the SLED and a 97 per cent probability of surviving a SLED escape, though it says this estimate may be 'mildly pessimistic'.
Though the Auckland Island sea lion pup production is highly variable, a decline trend for some years followed the outbreak of the introduced bacterial disease Campylobacter in 1998 which killed an estimated 53 per cent of newborn pups and 20 per cent of adult females. In 2002, another probably introduced bacterial disease Klebsiella pneumoniae killed 32 per cent of pups, and in 2003 another 21 per cent of the pups. Since 2002 Klebsiella pneumoniae bacteria have caused significant mortality in the sea lion pups at Enderby Island. Infected pups have meningitis as well as septicemia.
On 12 March 2014 the Conservation Minister Nick Smith was quoted as saying there was an 'excessive focus on fishing bycatch' and 300 pups had died this summer from an as yet unidentified disease.
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