New Zealand sea lion

Find out what Fisheries New Zealand and DOC are doing to recover sea lion/rāpoka populations.

The world's rarest sea lion

The New Zealand sea lion/rāpoka population is estimated to be around 12,000.

They breed mostly on our subantarctic islands (Auckland and Campbell islands particularly) but some also breed on Stewart Island and on the Otago and Southland coasts.

The species was classified as "nationally critical" following sea lion pup numbers declining by half at the main breeding colonies on the Auckland Islands between 1998 and 2009.

Pup numbers appear to have stabilised since then but have not recovered to the previous level. In response to this decline, we and the Department of Conservation (DOC) developed a sea lion threat management plan. It was released on 3 July 2017.

A plan to lift population numbers

The plan aims to recover sea lions to a "not threatened" status. Development of the plan has involved tangata whenua, communities, environmental, and industry groups, and communities.

Disease in breeding colonies on the Auckland Islands is the single greatest threat to sea lions. Other natural and man-made threats include:

  • the direct effects of fishing – when sea lions get caught in trawl nets
  • changes in food resources
  • poor habitat – for example, where pups drown in holes
  • deliberate human-caused mortality.

The New Zealand sea lion/rāpoka threat management plan lists the work that we will do to better understand and reduce these threats.

Download the plan [PDF, 2.1 MB]

Find out more

DOC has more information about the plan and the background to its development.

How fishing activity affects sea lions

Trawling around the subantarctic islands is the most common way for sea lions to be affected by fishing. Usually, it's because sea lions enter nets in search of food.

Fisheries New Zealand has worked with the fishing industry to reduce the effects on sea lions in the fisheries surrounding major sea lion breeding areas.


Historically, the Auckland Islands’ squid trawl fishery has had the most interactions with sea lions. Since 2007, all trawlers have voluntarily fitted approved Sea Lion Exclusion Devices (SLEDs) in their nets. The devices allow most sea lions that enter a trawl net to escape. SLEDs are estimated to be 80% effective in enabling sea lions to escape and survive.

An operational plan for this fishery includes:

  • observer coverage (over the past 5 years, 85% of tows have been observed)
  • auditing of SLEDs
  • requirements for immediate reporting of any captures
  • capture limits (after which the fishery is closed).

Southern blue whiting

Sea lion captures (almost all male) also occur in the Campbell Island southern blue whiting fishery. Since 2014, all vessels in this fishery have voluntarily used Sea Lion Exclusion Devices and captures of sea lions significantly reduced.

Other fisheries

Other fisheries where sea lions are at risk include subantarctic trawl fisheries for scampi. While we have received no reports of sea lion captures from set net and trawl fisheries around Stewart Island and off the Otago Coast, we're planning to look more closely at these fisheries.

How the Threat Management Plan will help

The Threat Management Plan includes work to help us better understand and manage commercial fisheries and contact with sea lions.

Firstly, we'll look at the areas where we already have good information and have managed to reduce contact. Those areas include the Auckland Islands squid trawl fishery and the Campbell Island southern blue whiting trawl fishery.

Our work will also include:

  • getting a better understanding on how sea lions get caught up in fishing activity
  • estimating how often it happens
  • reviewing the operational plan that sets out requirements for vessels working in the squid trawl fishery off the Auckland Islands
  • improving our understanding of sea lion escape and survival from Sea Lion Exclusion Devices
  • reviewing potential impacts of aquaculture on sea lions at Port Pegasus, Stewart Island.

Who to contact

If you have questions about New Zealand sea lions and the Threat Management Plan, email

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