06/09/2014 09:43 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 01:22 EDT

Steller sea lion mom freed from plastic packing off Vancouver Island

A Steller sea lion still nursing a pup has been saved by Vancouver Aquarium after becoming entangled in plastic packing wrap in the waters off Vancouver Island.

The sea lion was suffering from a deep wound from the strap bound tightly around her neck when she was found off the island's west coast on Saturday by the aquarium's Marine Mammal Rescue Centre team.

Head veterinarian Martin Haulena used a special dart to administer an anesthetic before removing the strap, cleaning the wound and administering antibiotics. He also collected the debris the sea lion was tangled in and tagged her.

“Steller sea lions are a species of special concern in Canada, so we’re really pleased about this rescue,” said Haulena.

“Best of all, she’s going to be in much better condition to care for her pup now.”

Haulena is one of only a few veterinarians in the world — and the only one in Canada — who has experience immobilizing sea lions with an anesthetic drug delivered by a dart.

The aquarium says it took 15 years to develop an effective combination of drugs and protocols to safely dart sea lions and remove entangled gear.

Sea lions frequently trapped in debris

According to the Vancouver Aquarium, the numbers of Steller sea lions are declining and entanglement in trash and marine debris is one of the issues they’re facing.

The aquarium estimates there are as many as 400 sea lions ensnared in garbage just in B.C.'s Pacific Rim National Park region.

Last fall, Haulena and marine mammal consulting biologist Wendy Szaniszlo successfully disentangled two sea lions for the first time in the Barkley-Clayoquot region.

In March, the Vancouver Aquarium team rescued several sea lions that were caught in plastic in the Fanny Bay area of Vancouver Island.

Later the same month, they rescued a male California sea lion that had a braided net tangled around its chest, abdomen and flipper off the east coast of Vancouver Island.

Anyone seeing a sea lion in distress is urged not to attempt a rescue themselves and to call Vancouver Aquarium's Marine Mammal Rescue Centre at 604-258-7325 or Fisheries and Oceans Canada at 1-800-465-4336.

“Do not try to handle marine animals,” said Haulena. “Improper removal of entangled gear may make the injury worse as vital structures, such as veins, arteries and nerves lie in close proximity to the entanglements.”

Haulena will be sharing stories of rescuing sea lions in the wild at a public presentation entitled Rescuing Sea Lions: Notes from the Field at Vancouver Aquarium on June 23 at 6:30 p.m. PT.

Tickets are $10, or $8 for Vancouver Aquarium members and students.