Steller sea lion foraging response to seasonal changes in prey availability

  • Sigler M
  • Tollit D
  • Vollenweider J
 et al. 
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We hypothesized that: (1) Steller sea lion Eumetopias jubatus diet choice is a function of prey availability, (2) sea lions move to take advantage of times and locations of seasonal prey concen- trations and (3) the number present depends on the amount of prey available (numerical response). Over 3 yr, typically on a quarterly basis, in Frederick Sound, SE Alaska, multiple measurements were taken of Steller sea lion abundance (aerial surveys), diet (scats), dive behavior (satellite telemetry) and prey availability and caloric density (nearshore, pelagic and demersal fish surveys). We found that Steller sea lions shifted diet composition in response to changes in prey availability of pollock Theragra chalcogramma, hake Merluccius productus, herring Clupea pallasi and salmon Oncorhyn- chus spp. They selected intermediate-sized fish and avoided small (60 cm) fish, and moved between areas as prey became available seasonally. The number of sea lions present depended on the amount of prey available; a standing biomass of 500 to 1700 t of prey in a non- breeding area such as Frederick Sound, depending on species composition, can attract and sustain about 500 sea lions. Pollock was more frequent in sea lion diet in inside waters of SE Alaska—includ- ing Frederick Sound, Stephens Passage and Lynn Canal—than anywhere else in Alaska and con- tributed ~1⁄3 of the dietary energy in Frederick Sound. This finding implies that a diet with substan- tial year-round contributions from less nutritious, but abundant prey such as pollock can form part of a healthy diet as long as more nutritious prey such as herring, salmon or eulachon Thaleichthys paci- ficus also are consumed. Our study supports the conclusion that the Steller sea lion is an opportunis- tic marine predator with a flexible foraging strategy that selects abundant, accessible prey and shifts among seasonally available species.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Diet
  • Foraging
  • Herring
  • Prey availability
  • Prey selection
  • Steller sea lion
  • Walleye pollock

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