A California sea lion eats a salmon near Bonneville Dam in Washington state. (Thomas Boyd/Oregonian/Associated…)
SEATTLE--The bodies of about 20 sea lions have been discovered along the coasts of Oregon and Washington over the last two months, most of them shot to death.
Who did it? No one knows, but there are a few guesses as to why—the playful but voracious creatures have long been blamed by fishermen and others for lunching on prized stocks of salmon and sturgeon, which swim along the Pacific Coast and up the Columbia River.
“I can say that a significant number of sea lions appear to be targeted by people shooting them. This has been happening for the last several months now, even though these are all protected species by federal law,” Jim Rice, Oregon coast coordinator for the Marine Mammal Stranding Network, told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday, after the latest two dead sea lions were discovered near the mouth of the Columbia River.
The sea lions have grown increasingly bold about fishing near Bonneville Dam, where large numbers of salmon protected under the federal Endangered Species Act make their way toward the sea.
The salmon plunder was so worrisome that the National Marine Fisheries Service has sought in recent years to lethally remove some of the biggest problem predators, in addition to hazing and trapping the animals.
This year, the agency authorized Northwest states to trap, and if necessary kill, up to 85 animals a year, as long as they could be individually identified as salmon thieves. After the Humane Society of the United States and three other groups filed suit, a federal judge cut that number to 35.
State officials in Oregon and Washington so far have trapped and removed 12 animals, 11 of which were euthanized by lethal injection. The 12th was transported to an aquarium.
But that program does nothing to authorize freelance shooting of the animals, which remains a violation of federal law under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Brian Gorman, spokesman for the fisheries service, said in an interview.
Though most of the animals discovered dead along the coast have been California sea lions, some have been Steller sea lions, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Gorman said federal officials still had no information about the latest round of shootings.
“I don’t know what’s going on. We had some episodes in Puget Sound and on the coast in early 2012 and late 2011 of harbor seals and California sea lions turning up dead, some of which had been shot," Gorman said. "But that investigation never went anywhere, or at least it hasn’t resulted in any convictions, or even arrests.”
Dalin D’Alessandro, a research assistant with the Marine Mammal Stranding Network who first described the deaths to the Oregonian, told the newspaper that all of the roughly 20 carcasses found so far bore evidence of either gunshot wounds or trauma probably caused by gunshots. A Steller sea lion found this week had three bullets in the neck, and a California sea lion also found this week was shot in the mid-back, she said.
In their lawsuit, attorneys for the Humane Society noted that sea lions consumed just over 1% of the salmon run in 2011, while fishermen harvested 12% of the same fish—another reason the shootings are illegal, Gorman said.
“The National Marine Fisheries Service’s decision to kill hundreds of native marine mammals to reduce salmon losses by a couple of percentage points at best, while simultaneously authorizing much larger man-made sources of endangered salmon mortality, is both outrageous and patently illegal,” Jonathan R. Lovvorn, chief counsel for animal protection litigation for the Humane Society, said in a statement when the lawsuit was filed.
Before 1972, fishermen could legally shoot a sea lion if it was interfering with a catch. That permission remains in place in many cases for fishermen from Native American tribes.
“To my knowledge, there has not been any wholesale shooting of sea lions by tribal fishermen, who are required to send us a report in any case, and we haven’t seen much activity in that case,” Gorman said.
He said it was also possible that someone may have been shooting already-dead sea lions as target practice. “We don’t know enough about the current issue to say much more,” he said.
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