skip to main content
caption: Veterinary nurse Casey Mclean, with the nonprofit SR3 conducts a necropsy on a California sea lion at a boat ramp in West Seattle in December. 
    Slideshow Icon 2 slides
Enlarge Icon
Veterinary nurse Casey Mclean, with the nonprofit SR3 conducts a necropsy on a California sea lion at a boat ramp in West Seattle in December.
Credit: KUOW Photo/John Ryan

Sea lion shootings: Federal crime or legal response to annoying animal?

Casey Mclean, a veterinary nurse, stood over the 800-pound carcass of a California sea lion on the West Seattle waterfront.

The bloated animal had washed up on a boat launch after floating around Puget Sound for weeks.

“Typically this time of year, we'll see maybe three or four animals, but we're up to case 16 of dead animals,” Mclean said. She works with SR3 – Sealife Response Rehabilitation and Research.

Of those 16 dead sea lions, 12 had bullets in them.

Federal officials are investigating what could be a federal crime – or a perfectly legal response to an age-old conflict.

Competing for food

Sea lions and humans both like to eat salmon, which brings the two mammals into conflict.

“A lot of times, people do see these animals as competition for food,” Mclean said. “They will take matters into their own hands sometimes."

Mclean had just finished a necropsy (an animal autopsy) to discern when this sea lion died, and why. Weeks at sea had severely decomposed this carcass, making it hard to diagnose — and hard on the nose.

“It's not a pleasant aroma,” Mclean said. “You absolutely do stop noticing it after a while — until you go into your car or somewhere else and then you notice how bad you stink. Or other people tell you how bad you stink.”

Cutting open the ripe carcass to see its insides didn’t reveal an obvious cause of death, so, to cap off her seaside post-mortem, she cut off the animal’s head to bring it in for X-rays. She put the head into a large garbage bag, then instructed a volunteer helping her to put the bag with its fetid contents into her car at the last possible moment.

In most circumstances, harassing or killing a marine mammal is a federal crime.

“You can serve up to a year in prison,” said Sean Stanley, a special agent with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Portland. Stanley oversees a small crew of plainclothes officers — sea-life cops — in Oregon and Washington.

“If you went to a weekend farmer's market, there might be four of us undercover buying illegally harvested, endangered fish,” he said.

Before he became a sea-life cop, Stanley was a Secret Service agent. He guarded Dick Cheney for three years.

Stanley wouldn’t talk about the ongoing sea lion cases. But he said crimes against non-humans can be tricky.

“They happen often in remote areas or even late at night. Really, there's no family or friend to call to report a dead sea lion,” he said.

The sea-life cops will use the same forensic techniques as other cops. But the lack of witnesses, as well as evidence that decomposes, corrodes, or sinks out of sight, can make investigations difficult.

“The truth is that the majority of gunshot marine mammals are unsolved,” Stanley said.

The last conviction in Washington was in 2009, when a crew member of a fishing boat shot a sea lion with a crossbow at the Westport Marina. After bragging about the shooting, Jonathan Brandt wound up with two years' probation and a $1,000 fine. The sea lion survived after a cop removed the arrow sticking out of its side.

More sea lions than ever

A couple dozen marine mammals are shot each year in the Northwest. That number has spiked in the past decade, along with the booming populations of seals and sea lions.

“We’ve got more seals and sea lions eating fish than we’ve ever had,” biologist Steve Jeffries with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said.

Seals and sea lions ate nearly 700 tons of Puget Sound chinook salmon in 2015, up from 75 tons in 1970, according to a study led by NOAA scientists.

Tribal and nontribal fishing groups in recent months have called for an official response to those booming numbers of salmon-eating seals and sea lions.

“Oh, it’s a big problem,” said Lorraine Loomis, fisheries manager for the Swinomish Tribe in Skagit County, north of Seattle. Loomis also represents 20 Washington tribes on fish concerns as chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

“I have grandsons that are fishing in the river, and they can they can see when a fish hits [their net],” she said, “but if they don't go and pick it out immediately, it will be eaten by a seal.”

Said Leonard Forsman, Suquamish tribal chair: “When you’re in areas where you’re fishing and you have pinnipeds [seals and sea lions] waiting for you to catch fish so they can take them out of your net or bite the bellies out of them, it can be pretty frustrating.”

While the Marine Mammal Protection Act generally prohibits killing or harassing the mammals, the tribes have treaty rights to catch fish and to protect their catch. Even if that means shooting a marine mammal.

Loomis said tribal fishermen use non-lethal methods like firecrackers to keep the flippered fish thieves away.

Long tribal history

Hunting seals and sea lions for food also has a long tribal history in Washington and elsewhere.

“That is something that can and will be done by many tribes,” Loomis said.

Killing seals – legally or otherwise – can be a touchy subject.

“They’re shooting animals interfering with their fishery because they’re allowed to by NOAA,” Jeffries, the state biologist, said. “NOAA doesn’t really talk about it.”

NOAA officials have devised “external talking points,” obtained by KUOW, concerning tribal shooting of seals and sea lions. After getting inquiries about gunshots and carcasses on the waterfront, NOAA distributed the talking points to groups that rescue stranded marine mammals.

“This activity may or may not be considered legal depending on the circumstances and who is involved,” Kristin Wilkinson of NOAA’s Seattle office notified members of the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network in November.

The most recent sea lion carcasses washed up in Seattle-area waters that the Muckleshoot and Suquamish Tribes traditionally fish. Officials with both tribes declined to answer questions about the recent shootings.

Federal officials say they investigate every marine mammal shooting – even if just to find out if it was legal or not. They often refer the investigations to tribal police.

Jeffries with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said proposals to cull harbor seals, in most instances, would generally do little to help struggling salmon populations.

Harbor seals eat dozens of different species, including small, young salmon feasted on by many other predators.

“If you eliminate predation from one source, some other predator’s going to eat them,” he said. But in specific locations where seals are chomping on adult salmon, even on their freshwater spawning grounds, it could help.

Seals head inland for salmon dinner

“Seals are going up the Chehalis River all the way to Centralia – way above tidewater,” Jeffries said. Centralia is 65 miles upriver from Grays Harbor.

“They do the same things on rivers on Hood Canal,” he said. “You need to have the ability to selectively manage seal and sea lion populations.”

The U.S. Congress passed a bill this month that would make it easier to kill sea lions that feast on salmon at dams in the Columbia River.

Back at the West Seattle boat ramp, Casey Mclean, the veterinary nurse, said examining stinky carcasses is a sad but important part of her job.

“Every dead animal really has a story to tell us," she said. “And they're telling us about the health of our Puget Sound...

"They're telling us how humans are interacting with these animals.”

And the X-ray results for this sea lion tell us that a human had shot it.

PDF Icon

NOAA Fisheries' June 2018 talking points on the sensitive subject of tribal "take" of seals and sea lions