Malibu Shootings Compound Bad Year for California Sea Lions

A happier sea lion pup | Photo: Larry Johnson/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Two sea lions found washed up on the Malibu shore in early October died of gunshot wounds, according to wildlife veterinarians, while a third dead sea lion bore what have been called "suspicious injuries."

One of the sea lions was found injured on Broad Beach on October 10, and later died at the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro. A dead sea lion was found October 11 on Big Rock Beach. The MMCC confirmed that both had been shot to death. The third was found earlier in the month.

The deaths correspond with the opening of the squid fishing season October 1. Malibu is a popular destination for squid fishermen, who use bright lights to attract the animals so that they can be netted. Sea lions, which eat squid, are often attracted by the process. Representatives of the squid fishing industry say they've had no reports of anyone shooting marine mammals this year.

The reports are distressing, but perhaps predictable in a year in which a very large number of California sea lions have been reported as starving.

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While fishermen are legally allowed to use non-lethal means such as loud noises to harass marine mammals away from their catch, the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) provides for heavy fines and jail time for anyone intentionally causing harm to sea lions.

According to Knowles Adkisson's report on the deaths in the Malibu Times, witnesses have reported flashes of light and gunshots coming from squid boats during past seasons.

Diane Pleschner-Steele of the California Wetfish Producers Association told Adkisson that her organization doesn't condone violations of the MMPA. "I've spoken to a couple of squid fishermen who were fishing recently around the Malibu coast area and they were unaware of any shooting activity related to the squid fishery," Plkeschner-Steel told Adkisson.

There are no leads in either of the sea lion deaths that point to a perpetrator, but statistics show that shootings of marine mammals have long risen during commercial fishing seasons. And that's not limited to Malibu. Sea lions and seals have been shot at by fishermen for years from Southern California to the Puget Sound area, during seasons ranging from squid to sardines to salmon.

According to the Jim Oswald at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito (not to be confused with the MMCC), which rehabilitates hundreds of sea lions and other marine mammals each year, about three or four percent of the center's typical annual caseload consists of animals with gunshot wounds, with sea lions making up most of the victims. Oswald told ReWild that of 500 marine mammals the Center treated in 2012, 230 of which were sea lions, a total of six -- all of them sea lions -- were treated for gunshot wounds.

"So far this year, The Marine Mammal Center has admitted three patients, all sea lions, that were wounded by gunshot," Oswald told ReWild. "All three died -- but in two of the cases, the cause of death was not because of the gun shots."

Based on records from the Marine Mammal Center and similar groups, the biggest cause of marine mammal injury and stranding would seem to be malnutrition, with injury from entanglement in fishing nets and gear another significant source of injury.

This year has already been extremely bad for California sea lions, with thousands of pups less than a year old washing up stranded or dead on Southern California beaches in the first half of the year. Most of the pups involved were emaciated and extremely dehydrated. The numbers of stranded pups were high enough that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries division declared it an Unusual Mortality Event. And of course, the total number of sea lion pup deaths this year may never be known, as the ocean can hide quite a number of small bodies.

While three sea lions dying under suspicious circumstances in Malibu in October might seem small potatoes compared to the thousands that washed up earlier this year from San Diego to Santa Barbara, harming a marine mammal is nonetheless a serious crime. And if fishermen are indeed involved iin the shootings, it would seem worth a reminder that we can hardly blame the sea lions for being hungry, especially this year.

People who find an apparently injured, stranded or dead marine mammal are encouraged to report their observations to the closest appropriate facility in the nationwide "stranding network" of organizations that keep track of stranding data for NOAAFisheries. Some of them work to rehabilitate live animals as well. You can see the list at NOAAFisheries' web site.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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