Local sea lions are being killed at an alarming rate this fall, according to wildlife officials.
As of Monday, 16 California sea lions have turned up dead in King and Kitsap counties since September, according to Seal Sitters, a marine-mammal protection network coordinated by NOAA. At least six have been reportedly shot, and all appear to have died from “acute trauma,” many “suspected from human interaction,” a November 21 press release said.
“Shootings not so coincidentally increase in correlation with fish runs, year-round,” the release states.
The garrulous sea lions – often heard barking at sundown in Bremerton and other parts of the county – can weigh up to 1,000 pounds. They are native to the Pacific Coast, often migrating north in search of salmon, squid and other fish. Confrontations with fishermen occur each year, multiple officials said.
Ron Garner, president of the Puget Sound Anglers club, said his organization does not “in any way promote” the illegal killing of sea lions. But he said the proliferation of the hungry marine mammals, and strict federal laws against hunting them, pose a threat to commercial and sport fishing in the Puget Sound region.
He said seals and sea lions are decimating steelhead stocks and “wiping out half” of salmon runs in the Columbia River.
“It’s happening everywhere,” he said. “We’re watching our salmon fisheries go down, and they’re taking the orcas with it.”
Garner’s group lobbies, along with commercial fisherman and some tribal groups, to relax rules in the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, which made it illegal to hunt marine mammals nationwide without a permit. Recent legislation has been proposed to allow limited takes in British Columbia and Oregon.
“Something’s got to be done,” Garner said.
Garner vouched for lawmakers to allow limited hunting of seals and sea lions in Washington. Others, it appears, have taken matters into their own hands.
Some of the accounts are grim. One sea lion found in a West Seattle cove was reportedly decapitated, the Seattle Times reported.
Experts say the number of sea lions shot and killed through November is at least six times higher than in previous years. And “peak” season – December through February – is yet to come.
“The number is expected to increase,” a Monday press release from Seal Sitters states.
Of the 16 animals found dead in the Puget Sound area, five were found in Kitsap County. All were found in November, according to Michael Milstein, a NOAA public affairs officer. He said they were “scattered” across the county.
An investigation is ongoing with NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Per federal law, killing seals or sea lions is punishable by up to a $25,000 fine and prison time.
While law enforcement continues to search for evidence, marine mammal advocates remain worried that this year will prove particularly trying for Washington’s sea lions.
“Sadly, this is just the beginning of what is likely to be a very deadly Fall/Winter season,” the November 21 statement reads. “Animals searching for food to survive, and fishermen searching out fish for consumption or livelihood are on an annual, never-ending collision course.”