British Columbia

Sea lion research station scrambles as U.S. funding dries up

A unique open water research station is looking for alternate funding sources to continue its research on sea lions.

The unique open water research centre is now seeking alternative funding sources to continue its research

UBC's Open Water Research Station was originally created to study the decline of the Alaskan stellar sea lion population. (Courtesy of Open Water Research Station)

The University of British Columbia's Open Water Research Station risks being shut down after losing its funding from the U.S. government.

The centre, located in Port Moody, was originally created to solve the mystery of why Alaskan steller sea lions were going extinct, while B.C.'s population continued to grow exponentially. 

The station's operating costs have been covered by the U.S. government since 2003, but this year the funding did not come through.

The researchers are not sure why it was discontinued. 

A floating lab

The station's "floating lab" concept is unique because it allows the researchers to study the animals in their natural habitat. 

While the station's four steller sea lions are kept in open pens, they are taken out into the open water on a daily basis.

On some days, the sea lions are transported into the Burrard Inlet in a boat called the "steller shuttle."

The inlet's deep waters allow them to conduct underwater diving studies that are impossible in the confines of an aquarium.

The research station releases the stellar sea lions into the open water daily to study the animals in their natural habitat. (Courtesy of Open Water Research Station)

'Why would a sea lion stay with a researcher?'

UBC Marine Mammal Research Unit director Andrew Trites said that when they proposed the project, many people didn't believe that it was possible. 

"When we proposed this 13 years ago people said, 'This is crazy. Why would a sea lion stay with a researcher? They're all going to swim off and become wild again.'"

Trites compared the approach to taking a dog off a leash.

"It'll wander and explore, but if you treat it right, it'll keep coming back." 

Trites said the station's methods are unique in the world, and that the only other group to have conducted similar research is the U.S. military, which has trained California sea lions.

"The males can weigh 2,000 pounds, they're just gigantic, and they've never been thought to be that trainable. But they work very well with researchers and are able to collect scientific data," he said.

Beer funding scientific research

It costs the station around $200,000 to cover its operating costs, including paying site staff and maintaining the lab.

The station currently has funds to operate for about six more months, and is looking for alternative funding through both scientific grants and non-traditional fundraising.

Among their more unconventional funding sources is the California-based North Coast Brewing Company, which named an IPA after the steller sea lion. 

On some days, the researchers transport the sea lions in a boat they refer to ask the "steller shuttle." (Courtesy of Open Water Research Station )

Disney and ABC recently used the station as the set of a pilot TV show called The Deep, a partnership that Trites said he hopes will continue if the show is picked up. 

The centre has also applied to partner with the Port of Vancouver.

Trites said that despite the setback, he's been heartened by the community's response and doesn't believe this is the end of the station.

"I'm still optimistic that this isn't the end, and I think everybody who comes to see it is just so amazed about something they never thought was possible," he said.