MALIBU — Wildlife rescue workers confirmed last week that two sea lions that washed onto the Malibu coast on Oct. 10 and 11 died of gunshot wounds, while a third dead sea lion bore suspicious injuries.
The shooting deaths coincided with the beginning of the squid fishing season on Oct. 1, but a spokesperson for the fishing industry said fishermen in the area were unaware of any shooting.
One sea lion washed up alive on Broad Beach on Oct. 10 with suspicious injuries, according to biologist Jeff Hall of the California Wildlife Center, and later died after being transported to the Marine Mammal Care Center (MMCC) in San Pedro.
A second sea lion was found dead on Big Rock Beach on Oct. 11, and was found to have a bullet in its right shoulder, Hall said.
Subsequent necropsies performed at the MMCC confirmed the two sea lions died of bullet wounds, MMCC veterinarian Lauren Palmer said.
“These two animals, yes they were shot. Yes they were killed,” Palmer said. “Who did it? I don’t know.”
The third sea lion was found dead at the beginning of the month.
Some have suggested that the dozens of squid boats that showed up near County Line Beach at the beginning of the month and the death of the sea lions may be related.
Squid fishing season begins Oct. 1. Dozens of boats flock to the Malibu coastline for its sandy bottoms, which harbor fertile squid populations. Using a small boat with 30 1,000-watt lights, fishermen flip the light switch to attract huge masses of squid to the surface, then circle the squid with a net and pump them into the hold of an adjacent boat.
The squid also attract natural hunters, such as sea lions. Sea lions and other mammals are protected under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act. Fishermen are allowed to use non-lethal means, such as firecracker-like “seal bombs,” to scare hunters away from their nets, but not bullets. Critics allege it happens anyway.
Donna Collins, a seasonal worker for California State Parks, said she commonly heard gunshots and saw flashes of light from squid boats when she stopped at County Line Beach last winter while on patrol. She usually stopped at County Line around 11 p.m., she said.
“These were definitely gunshots. And it had happened several times,” Collins said. “I contacted the Coast Guard … . They said they’d had several complaints about it as well. They said they were going to do their own investigation. We never heard anything about that particular incident.”
Collins said she has since transferred her patrol and has not heard the sounds this winter, but believes what she heard is continuing.
Hall said he did not know who shot the sea lions, but did say “it’s not at all uncommon that when the fishing season opens we get a higher number of animals that are shot.”
But Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association, which represents the squid fishery, said CWPA members don’t condone illegal activity.
“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,” Pleschner-Steele wrote in an e-mail. “Deliberately ‘taking’, i.e., shooting or harassing marine mammals by potentially lethal means, is prohibited … and could trigger a big fine and prosecution.”
Pleschner-Steele continued that “fishermen do have approval now to use non-lethal means to protect gear and catch, and some use seal deterrent devices … [but] shooting sea lions is not a common practice in the squid fishery.”
This story first appeared in The Malibu Times.