Editor's note: Video footage of this rescue and an interview with Jim Rice are available at http://bit.ly/aZb7Sn. A high-resolution, broadcast version of the same footage is available at http://files.me.com/universitymarketing/w63sto.mov. Finally, an embeddable file of the footage is available through the OSU You Tube channel at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=160GaUQBD2U.
FLORENCE, Ore. - An Oregon State University team worked quickly with the owners of Sea Lion Caves and federal authorities late Thursday to rescue a Steller sea lion tangled in a trawl net and trapped among coastal rocks.
The Marine Mammal Stranding Network rescuers removed the netting and set the 250-pound animal free, preventing its likely death from starvation or trauma. Within minutes, the sub-adult sea lion, likely a female estimated to be about 4 years old, was swimming with dozens of other sea lions in the churning water at the entrance to Sea Lion Caves, one of Oregon's most popular coastal tourist destinations.
"There was a fair amount of net wrapped around its face and neck, and several feet of trailing net were trapped between rocks. The animal only had about a 10-foot radius of movement," said Jim Rice, who coordinates the network as part of the OSU Marine Mammal Institute. "It had been stuck there for about a day, and we estimate it had been tangled in the net for a few days, maybe a week. It would not have been able to forage or eat where it was stuck, and eventually, the net would have cut into the face and neck, causing serious tissue damage."
While the OSU performed the rescue, cooperation from the Sea Lion Caves and quick assistance from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made it possible. Sea Lions Caves managers rarely allow anyone into the cordoned off areas where the animals congregate; patrons view the sea lions from a spectator platform separated by a short wall and fence from the cave interior.
"I've been there for 50 years, and this is the first time we've ever had an animal trapped like that and the first time for a rescue, so it's very exciting," said Steve Saubert, a co-owner of the Caves. "Our goal at Sea Lion Caves is to preserve nature - not just sea lions, but birds, ground squirrels, deer. We have a lot of wildlife around here. So being able to save this animal was very important to us."
While the Caves were quick to close the attraction early Thursday so rescuers could get to the animal with minimal disruption, the OSU team also needed approval from NOAA, which oversees any human interaction with sea lions in such situations. NOAA gave its approval "almost immediately," said Rice, making the daylight operation possible.
That didn't, however, mean that the sea lions would appreciate having strangers among them. Though juveniles and females primarily populate the Caves, the animals can be aggressive. In addition to damaging tissue, a sea lion bite can cause serious infection from organisms typically living in their mouths.
To create a barrier between rescuers and the sea lion, the team used plywood "crowder boards," which proved valuable when the animal tried to bite them. Still, only light sedation, administered by a veterinarian was part of the rescue team, was necessary to subdue the sea lion while the netting was removed.
"Once the netting was released, the tissue in the neck bounced back and regained its normal appearance, virtually immediately," said Rice, who called it lucky that the animal had become stuck at the Caves. "It was because she was basically immobilized at the Cave that we had the opportunity to approach her. We typically don't have this opportunity with entangled animals - they're typically able to flee and escape a would-be rescuer."