Search on for sea lion shooter
Federal authorities are trying to find out who shot and killed a seal and at least four sea lions — including one protected under the Endangered Species Act — in Puget Sound.
Seattle Times staff reporters
Federal authorities are trying to find out who shot and killed a seal and at least four sea lions in Puget Sound, including one protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The carcasses washed up on various West Seattle beaches over the past week.
"We get one or two of these incidents a year," said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is investigating. "It's very unusual to get multiple incidents."
He acknowledged it may be hard to find the shooter, "but that doesn't prevent us from trying."
One of the animals is a Steller's sea lion, which is protected as an endangered species, while the others are more common California sea lions, Gorman said.
Carcasses of five sea lions and a harbor seal have washed up on the beaches, Gorman said, but biologists are uncertain if one of the sea lions was shot. The deaths were first reported on the West Seattle Blog.
Residents said a sixth sea lion appeared to be in distress in the water, but officials weren't sure if it's related, Gorman said. There also have been reports of between three and nine more floating carcasses, perhaps a week or two old.
All sea lions are protected under the Marine Mammals Act, but it's not illegal to shoot one if the person believes his or her life is in danger, said Gorman. He said some tribes have permits to kill the more common type of sea lion, but no shootings have been reported.
"I seriously doubt these shootings are legal," he said.
Fishing activist and retired sport fisherman Frank Urabeck said the shootings could have happened because sea lions and seals often wait near fishermen and take their hooked fish.
"We're all trying to catch fish. They're not that easy to come by sometimes, and when you have one taken from you by a sea lion, people get excited about that," Urabeck said, adding the problem has "clearly gotten much worse."
But Urabeck, who was involved in a successful effort to ban sea lions from the Ballard Locks in 1994, said that is no excuse to shoot them.
The shooter or shooters could face a $50,000 federal fine, Gorman said.
The Humane Society of the United States is offering a $2,500 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case.
"The individual or individuals responsible for this callous poaching have an appalling disregard for both sea lions and the laws that exist to protect these iconic animals," said Dan Paul, Washington state director for The Humane Society of the United States, in a news release.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife performed necropsies on all six animals and determined that five died of gunshot wounds and had been dead for a week or two. Some of the bullets were removed and will be turned over to investigators.
"One of the things we'll do is look at the bullets to see what kind of weapons they came from and whether it's the same weapon," Gorman said. "We're talking to residents to see if there are witnesses."
West Seattle-based Seal Sitters, a volunteer group formed to protect harbor seals in Puget Sound, said it is waiting for the necropsy report.
"While winter typically brings a fair amount of death to our shores, this volume seems unusual," the group said on its Web site.
The group said the sea lions were 8 to 10 years old and in good health. The Steller's sea lion is listed as endangered because the Western population has fallen as much as 80 percent since the 1970s.
The carcasses were towed into the Sound and sunk as food for other sea life, Gorman said.
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