A Vancouver Aquarium rescue team has freed a sea lion whose neck was snared in plastic packing material, but estimates there could be up to 400 more animals entangled along the B.C. coast.

The Marine Mammal Rescue Centre ventured into the Fanny Bay area of Vancouver Island this week after receiving several reports of a distressed sea lion.

They located an animal whose neck was tightly clenched in a packing strap, which aquarium head veterinarian Dr. Martin Haulena called the most common trap for marine life in the province.

“It’s very, very sharp,” Haulena said. “The material’s very hard to break and it does this sawing action that breaks the skin and starts moving through the animal.”

The size of the looped straps, which could come from a number of sources from fish bait boxes to shipping packages, is often just wide enough for marine mammals to swim into and tangle themselves.

The aquarium team was able to tranquilize the California sea lion on a log boom, disentangle it on site and let it go.

Unfortunately, Haulena said they discovered other snared sea lions during the expedition, and can’t even be sure they rescued the one they set out to find.

The successful mission marks the third California sea lion saved by the Rescue Centre, following a trip to Barkley Sound last October where two others were freed from potentially-fatal entanglements.

B.C.’s rising population, increasing use of coastal areas and growing marine mammal numbers are all factors in what Haulena believes is an surge in entanglements – the centre estimates there are between 200 and 400 more animals currently snared.

Freeing the animals is a costly endeavor, however, requiring specialized teams and expensive supplies.

“Our drug combinations are in the neighbourhood of $300-$500 a shot,” Haulena said. “So you don’t want to miss.”

Despite the number of animals in trouble, the aquarium urged anyone who sees an entanglement to call authorities rather than try to step in and help.

“That’s just a really, really bad idea,” Haulena said. “In the worst case scenario you’re going to do damage to yourselves or the animal. It seems like an easy thing to remove the gear but a lot of problems have happened when people try to pull on the gear and it slices something very vital as it’s coming out.”

Aquarium teams are trained to safely remove materials embedded in animals’ skin and check to make sure their wounds will heal, he added.

Haulena said researchers in Alaska are working on a type of plastic packing strap that will be just as strong, but biodegradable.

In the meantime, the public is asked to be mindful not to litter garbage and debris in rivers, lakes and oceans where they can harm animals.

To report a marine mammal in distress, contact the Vancouver Aquarium’s Rescue Centre at 604-258-7325 or the Department of Fisheries and Oceans at 1-800-465-4336.

To volunteer to help clean the shorelines, visit the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup website.