A five-year-old male California sea lion was swimming north of Bodega Bay when he heard the familiar drone of an engine and swam out to investigate. It was mid-August, just before the end of salmon season. When he looked up he saw three dozen fishing lines dragging behind a commercial fishing boat. Hooked salmon flailed on the lines as the crew used hydraulic winches to slowly pull in the gear.
Hungry, the sea lion swam closer. Easily outpacing the boat, he bit into a salmon, breaking the fish’s jaw as he pulled it off the line. Once free, he took a single bite into its roe-filled belly, and left the body and tail behind. Then he bit into the next fish on the line, and the next, and the next. A trail of dead salmon littered the boat’s wake.
Although it is impossible to know the exact circumstances that led to the sea lion’s death, after speaking with 17 local fishermen, here’s what most likely happened next: A captain watched the sea lion eat his livelihood, became frustrated, got out his shotgun and fired at the sea lion. We do know from the X-ray and from speaking with witnesses, that the pellet pierced through the sea lion’s right eye, and lodged in his lower jaw, fracturing it. Another shot broke through the ½ inch thick layer of blubbery skin just below the sea lion’s sagittal crest, the characteristic raised bump on the top of his head. The pellet lodged in the animal’s muscular jowls, and left dozens of tiny lead fragments embedded in its skull.
Still alive, the wounded sea lion swam feebly, letting the current drift him into Schoolhouse Beach, about 4 miles north of Bodega Bay, where people noticed him lying on the sand and called the ranger station. By the time the ranger got there, the sea lion was gone. A few days later, around noon on August 22nd, he washed up one mile further north on Wright’s Beach. His breathing was labored, and his tail flopped back and forth, back and forth.
At noon a lifeguard called the Marine Mammal Center, in Sausalito, where injured animals are treated, rehabilitated and released. A ranger, a lifeguard, and three others recruited from the beach, gathered to capture the sea lion. Usually, rescuers use wooden shields to protect themselves from being bitten while coercing the animal into a large, metal kennel. This time, the sea lion was so sick and exhausted that they used the shields to scoop and prod him. His eye was infected and smelled like rot. Two hours later, when the Marine Mammal Center volunteers arrived to haul him away, the sea lion was already dead. Instead of being given a name and treated, he was labeled “DOA,” X-rayed to determine cause of death, and his body was sent off to factor in San Jose where his bones were turned into tallow.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act
Once abundant along the coast, California sea lions were heavily hunted in the 1800s for their blubber, which was used to make oil. By 1909 the sea lions had some legal protection in California, but were still hunted extensively in Mexican waters for use as an ingredient in dog food. By mid-century protection measures had helped the population rebound, but for those who’ve been in the business since then, they remember when restrictions were much more lax.
“They used to shoot at everything,” said a longtime West Marin fisherman.
That all changed in 1972, when the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed, prohibiting the “taking”, or killing, of marine mammals, including stellar sea lions, harbor and elephant seals. Throughout the 70s, 80s and into the 90s fishermen were still granted permits to shoot if a sea lion was directly interfering with fishing. In 1994, Congress amended the Act and outlawed shooting altogether, unless the fisherman’s life was in danger. The Act was supposed to be re-authorized in 1999 with new amendments, but so far it has only been extended by yearly resolutions.
Despite the Act’s provisions, under the cover of fog or alone out on the sea, some fishermen, up and down the coast, risk fines of up to $10,000 to pull the trigger. “There are literally hundreds if not thousands killed every year off the coast of California, Oregon, and Washington,” said Norman Simons, a special agent with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
This year, Ray “Bones” Bandar, found three sea lion skulls with bullet holes, he said, including one on October 10 at South Beach on Point Reyes. Bandar collects the skulls of deadsea animals off Northern California beaches for the collections of the California Academy of Science. The Marine Mammal Center receives 30 to 40 animals with bullet wounds every year, which equals about 8% of the animals treated, said Frances Gulland, a veterinarian at the center.
There are now an estimated 300,000 sea lions living along the California coasts. The number of sea lion pups increased by 5.4% every year from 1975 to 2001, with the exception of a few El Nino years, when food is scarce, according to data complied by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Consistent with the increase in numbers, over the last decade, harassment by the sea lions is occurring more and more frequently, said Tony Anello, a Bodega Bay fisherman. Six years ago he said perhaps only three days out of the season were ruined by sea lions. Now he said it’s more like every third day.
It’s not just fishermen who have noticed the sea lions’ affinity for salmon. Congressmen in Oregon and Washington announced last week that they are introducing legislation that, if passed, would make it legal for state and tribal officials to kill sea lions eating salmon in the Columbia River. They claim that the sea lions are endangering the salmon, a federally protected species. Others say that sea lions are a scapegoat for larger problems like dams and poor river management. Even if the legislation passed, it would have no effect on California.
Because the animals are so popular with the public, fishermen rarely speak openly about their relationship with the marine mammals. The Light spoke with 17 fishermen. Four of those, in Bodega Bay, declined requests for an interview. One joked that he would share his thoughts on sea lions only in exchange for an unborn first child. Three West Marin fishermen said shootings are extremely rare, or don’t happen anymore. Two West Marin sport fishermen, one commercial fisherman from Bodega Bay, and two commercial fishermen in San Francisco confirmed that shootings happen regularly, but all requested that their names be kept secret. Five others confirmed the contentious relationship, but little else.
“It’s like someone reaching into your purse and taking a $100 bill out, again and again and again,” said one, who went by the nickname “Bear.” Male sea lions can grow to be eight feet long, and can weigh up to 600 pounds. Every day they eat the equivalent of about 10% of their weight.
One Bodega fisherman, Tony Anello, spoke openly about the havoc wreaked by the sea lions, and the frustrations of his fellow fishers, but Anello would neither confirm nor deny that sea lions were killed on the open sea. “I refuse to incriminate anyone,” he said. Personally, he said he would never shoot at them. “I’ll yell, I’ll scream, I’ll pull my hair out, but I refuse to take out a gun,” he said.
Another, nicknamed “Red,” said that a few years ago, on a foggy day near Bodega, a herd of sea lions were stealing the fish off his lines. He yelled at them to get off, to no avail. A sport fisherman came by, asked what the problem was, took out a shotgun, and killed two of them. The rest split. “He was my hero,” said Red. Another San Francisco fisherman said that he has shot at them before, but missed. A third mentioned in passing that the first time he saw one of the few female fishers, she was leaning out her boat, nine months pregnant, shooting at a sea lion with a rifle.
At least three fishermen, including Anello, expressed disapproval of the practice. All but two of those interviewed denied or were silent about owning guns themselves, and all but one said that they did not personally shoot at sea lions.
Smart as dogs
Fishermen don’t hold a grudge against the entire species. In San Francisco the fishermen regularly feed bait herring to friendly sea lions, like “Minnie the Moocher” who come begging at Pier 45. “We’d rather keep ‘em in here than out there,” said one fisherman. Even in this they must be careful because feeding a sea lion can qualify as harassment under the Act and can bring a $500 fine, for each incident.
Circus ring masters have long known that sea lions are gregarious and intelligent animals, which also makes them cunning fish-snackers. But it’s not all the sea lions that go after the boats.
“It’s a small group of sea lions that learn that behavior,” said a Bodega fisherman. “I think most of the time, it’s a family thing. One will swim out and follow the boats, and then one day their little brother follows them. It’s just like if you had a cousin that was hanging out doing bad things. It’s a pretty interesting problem,” he said.
Known as lobos marinos, or “wolves of the sea” in Spanish, experts compare their intelligence to dogs, able to make complex associations to find food. Several fishermen reported that if they pull out a stick or a broom and acted like it was a gun a sea lion will at least momentarily take cover.
What’s allowed: bells and whistles
California fishermen went to a meeting last December to find out which alternatives to shooting they are allowed to use. Approved methods include: slingshots, paint ball guns, and rubber bullets. They can also engage in“hazing” or circling the sea lion with the boat, pounding on the hull to scare them away, pyrotechnics (bird screamers, bangers, underwater firecrackers"also known as “seal bombs”), starter pistols, and horns, bells and whistles.
None of these methods have proven to be very effective, said Dr. Doyle Hanan, a marine biologist, and an employee of the Fish and Game marine mammal program for 30 years. Some fishermen call the explosive seal bombs “dinner bells” because after repeated use, the sea lions learn to associate them with food. Explosives may also damage the sea lions’ ears over time, said Hanan. In the 1980’s Hanan experimented with baited salmon, which he laced with lithium chloride to make the sea lions nauseous. His initial tests showed that the sea lions avoided salmon after that, but still went for other kinds of fish. When his permit ran out, Hanan was denied permission to finish his study. No one has ever followed up to see if this might be an acceptable solution because the topic is too sensitive, he said.
While the search for a peaceful solution to the fisherman-sea lion conflict continues, the cunning animals are likely to continue chasing after salmon boats, and washing up on California beaches.