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Sea lions risk it all for a bite

Many are shot trying to swipe an angler's catch.

March 02, 2004|Deborah Sullivan Brennan | Special to The Times

Skipper Rick Oefinger was happy for his passenger, an elated angler who had hooked his first yellowtail off Santa Monica Bay. His two children were helping reel in the catch, but as the struggling fish neared the boat, a sea lion appeared, snatched the yellowtail off the line and devoured it.

In tears, the man's daughter turned to Oefinger and demanded, "Isn't there anything you can do?"

In the old days, Oefinger, president of Marina del Rey Sportfishing, carried a gun onboard and sometimes shot troublesome sea lions. Now he and other fishermen say they will not risk felony charges and loss of licenses by breaching the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, which forbids harm or harassment of the creatures.

But as "Chippy," a sea lion that hopped ashore near Los Banos, Calif., last month, revealed, some are breaking the law and attacking the animals they consider detrimental to their livelihood. Chippy waddled out of the San Joaquin River with a bullet in its head. It is being treated at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, where workers gave it its nickname. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is investigating the attack, and rewards totaling $3,500 have been offered.

But without leads or suspects, such cases are tough to crack. A charter captain, William Cavanaugh, and two crew members, Matthew Lyon and Anthony Hill, recently pleaded guilty to shooting a baby sea lion, dubbed "Arrow," with a crossbow in Morro Bay in 2002.

Dan Torquemada, a special agent with NOAA, says the agency investigates about a dozen such cases each year. Fifty-three California sea lions were found stranded with gunshot wounds in 2001, and 83 in 2002, and many more likely perish at sea, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Fishermen say that they're the real victims and that the sea lions are like marine thugs. "Marauding bands" or "packs" of sea lions trail boats, stealing fish off lines or from nets, Oefinger said. They've been known to climb aboard boats and chase crew members. Fishing boat crews toss small bombs at the animals to scare them away, but it often backfires because to sea lions, the blast announces an easy meal nearby.

"Nobody wants to hurt them, but they can be extremely frustrating at times when you're looking at a good part of your day's catch being taken away," said Zeke Grader of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.

Less than 5% of fish catch is stolen by seals or sea lions from party boats statewide, but in Southern California the loss can be more than 10%, said Bob Read, a biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game. Fishermen say that on the worst days the animals take virtually all of a commercial or charter boat's haul.

Tensions have escalated as the sea lion population has more than tripled from the mid-1960s to more than 200,000 today, said Joe Cordaro, a wildlife biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service. Many biologists believe the sea lion population on the West Coast is probably higher than it's ever been.

Those numbers raise fears that without hunting, the animals have rebounded beyond their natural limits. Others argue, however, that sea lions would crash due to starvation if they were overpopulated, and so far that hasn't happened.

Only a handful of sea lions become a nuisance. Like the odd Dumpster-diving bear or cat-munching coyote, "certain individuals learn that it's easier to get a meal that's on the end of the line than to go hunt it themselves," Cordaro said.

But while homeowners or ranchers plagued by nuisance wildlife can seek permits to kill the offending animals, fishermen lament that they have no such defense.

"I've wished myself dozens of times that if I could only take out the shotgun, for 50 cents' worth of ammunition, my passengers could have a very nice day," Oefinger said.

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