Who’s Shooting San Diego’s Sea Lions?

Six of the marine mammals have been shot in the past two months, and the perpetrators remain at large.

(Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters)

Nov 14, 2014· 1 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Over the past year, eight sea lions have been found riddled with bullets on beaches in San Diego County. Six of the shootings occurred in the last two months.

“We’ve seen bullets to the lungs, which then cause pneumonia,” Todd Schmitt, a SeaWorld senior veterinarian, told U-T San Diego. “We’ve seen bullets in the abdomen and thorax, which introduce infections.”

Some animals were shot in the shoulder or flipper, rendering them unable to swim.

Gunshot wounds are not the only problem. Three sea lions were recently found with a fishing spear in their flesh, and another with fishing line wrapped tightly around its neck.

Rescuers took the injured animals to SeaWorld San Diego for treatment; only one, the entangled female, survived.

The spate of killings has alarmed local animal-protection advocates.

“The harassment is escalating, and there’s absolutely no effort to stop it by any authorities,” said Jane Cartmill, president of San Diego Animal Advocates. “[National Marine Fisheries Service] has an office a few blocks away, and no agent has gone down there.”

But an official from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which includes NMFS, said the agency takes the killings seriously.

“Agents for NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement are aware of the incidents and are conducting an investigation,” John Thibodeau, a spokesperson for NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement, said in an email. “Agents are collecting evidence and speaking with the public to gather more information.”

He asked anyone with information to call the NOAA Enforcement Hotline at 800-853-1964.

County animal-protection officials and federal agents don’t know who is harming the sea lions, though Cartmill suspects it could be fishermen, who compete with local seals and sea lions for fish.

Cartmill added that harassment by people on land and in kayaks is not helping.

Videos taken by activist Andrea Hahn illustrate the severity of the problem, which includes people approaching hauled-out sea lions and throwing stones at them.

Cartmill said the debate over seals and sea lions in San Diego has been raging for some 20 years, pitting activists against homeowners and business owners—especially in the upscale La Jolla district—who complain about sea lions occupying the beach and foul odors emanating from where they congregate.

“The way to deal with it isn’t to let people harass the hell out of the animals and hope they go away,” Cartmill said.

What more can be done?

“Public education and outreach to the fishing industry and general public is critical to improving compliance with federal regulations,” Thibodeau said. “This type of interaction may prevent future crimes.”

NOAA is hiring up to 20 additional enforcement officers across the country, Thibodeau added. “Their presence on the docks and interactions with the fishing community will be a key part of gaining compliance and preventing these types of crimes,” he said.

Cartmill’s group has offered a $2,000 reward for information on the shootings.

“Does it make it likely that someone comes forward?” she said. “I don’t know. But it gets it on the news one more time and keeps a focus on this crime.”