Record number of sea lion pups

A record crop . . . One of Dunedin’s 31 new New Zealand sea lion pups hides in the bushes at...
A record crop . . . One of Dunedin’s 31 new New Zealand sea lion pups hides in the bushes at Smaills Beach yesterday afternoon. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON
Department of Conservation staff ran out of microchips as sea lion pup numbers exceeded all expectations in New Zealand's wildlife capital this year.

Dunedin’s annual breeding season pup counts have set records in three consecutive years — increasing from a record 20 pups in 2022 to 21 last year and now 31 pups have been counted this year.

Department of Conservation (Doc) Coastal Otago biodiversity ranger Jim Fyfe said he was ‘‘thrilled’’ with the breeding success.

The increase suggested the Dunedin population would reach official breeding colony status sooner than expected.

The threshold for Doc to declare Dunedin a breeding colony is 35 pups a year over five years.

Next year could be the first of those five years, Mr Fyfe said.

Dunedin’s sea lion population was the largest on the mainland for many years, ‘‘certainly since Europeans arrived in the country’’, he said.

Because there were so many more than the 25 pups they had expected to encounter, Doc staff and Otakou Runaka representatives tagging pups at the weekend had been caught short of microchips — and one pup on Otago Peninsula at present remained untagged, Mr Fyfe said.

The breeding success showed females were continuing to find habitat around Dunedin suitable for bringing pups into the world.

Still, sea lions had ongoing habitat needs that people needed to think about as their numbers increased, because the habitats for humans and sea lions ‘‘overlap so completely’’.

‘‘Sea lions are charismatic and people are intrigued by them and the pups are seriously cute.

‘‘So, it’s hard for people to object too hard to them being in their back yard or on the beach.’’

Dunedin’s matriarch Mum had her first pup here in 1994.

The matriarch of a smaller, separate Catlins population was born in 2001 and started breeding there in 2006.