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Extinct sea lions a sign of danger: study

NZ NewswireNZ Newswire 10/07/2016

Scientists should be celebrating the discovery of an extinct species of ancient sea lion - but instead they say the animal's demise may point to disaster for its modern cousins.

A global team of researchers led by a University of Otago group have found New Zealand's Chatham Islands were once home to a prehistoric species of sea lion totally different to those found in New Zealand today.

But they say their genetic modelling study has revealed the animals died out within 200 years of human arrival and this could spell danger for modern sea lions.

"Modelling indicated that hunting rates greater than one sea lion per person per year resulted in the extinction of native populations within 200 years of first human settlement," archaeologist Justin Maxwell said.

"Sea lions were not able to withstand even low levels of sustained hunting pressure."

Biologist Bruce Robertson said using the same modelling for modern sea lions revealed current reported and unreported levels of catching may be unsustainable if the species is to survive.

"What our research shows is that human harvesting and sea lions do not mix. Unless measures are taken to mitigate continuing bycatch levels, the outlook for our sea lions is bleak," he said.

Sea lions are listed as endangered by various international groups, with only about 10,000 remaining and birth rates dropping by 50 per cent since 1998.

The researchers said fisheries bycatch - where one species is accidentally caught while fishing for others - and resource competition were the main causes of the decline.

"Our study adds to the growing evidence that undetected sea lion bycatch may still be driving the decline of the species, something the governments recently released sea lion threat management plan dismisses," Professor Robertson said.

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