South Australian researchers are hoping school students will help play a vital role in the conservation of Australian sea lions.
The species is endemic to Australia, with more than 80 per cent of the population found in South Australian waters.
But the marine mammal was recently declared endangered, with numbers declining, according to one study, by around 60 per cent in the last 40 years.
Scientists are now endeavouring to collate as much data as possible on sea lions' breeding habits and population trends to inform the next steps in conservation efforts — and they are calling on the public, including school students, for help.
The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPSW) of South Australia recently launched a website called Sea Lion Spotter, which enables citizen scientists to help identify and classify sea lions from thousands of drone images captured during surveys of sea lion colonies.
The website provides an introduction to identifying the sea lions, before users are asked to click on the mammals they can spot amongst rocky coastal outcrops and tag them as either males, females, or pups.
Marine coordinator for NPSW SA, Dirk Holman, said the Sea Lion Spotter site would give the animals greater public visibility.
"Because of the nature of where they live and where they breed, they're out of sight and out of mind," he said.
'I feel like I'm helping'
A group of school students this week attended a presentation on sea lions at Adelaide Zoo to learn about how to get involved in the conservation of the species, using a familiar concept.
"It's like Where's Wally where you have to find a sea lion and then classify it," year 7 student Joshua said.
"Just looking at this I can see that sea lions are really intelligent animals and they deserve to be in this world."
Mr Holman said the website has so far been a big hit.
"We've had people from 22 different countries — people as far away as Russia — giving it a go," he said.
"The data will go into population surveys.
"We're monitoring pup production so all that data they collect and put into the system will go into our long term database."
Sea lion problems 'mainly human-induced'
Scientists have a big task ahead in addressing the multitude of threats the colonies face, Mr Holman said.
"There are a lot of threats which are impacting on the species," he said.
"They're mainly human-induced unfortunately, from commercial fisheries bycatch to marine debris, to habitat destruction, climate change, prey depletion, diseases and parasites, pollutants in the water."
But Mr Holman is clear on one thing: there remains hope for Australian sea lions — especially with the interest of a new generation of conservationists.
"It's been a real highlight to see [students] not only take an interest in the sea lions but a lot of them picked up some of the messaging we were talking about.
"To hear that they want to go home and use the Sea Lion Spotter app is just so rewarding."