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Up to Its Neck in Trouble : Sea Lion Hurt by Fishing Line Eludes Rescuers

Times Staff Writer

An injured sea lion, its neck bleeding from a tight tangle of fishing line, has been eluding the nets of animal activists who fear that unless they catch the Newport Harbor animal, it could die.

Ironically, the rescuers may have to wait until the sea mammal--which has been perched on a bell buoy at the entrance of the harbor--is weakened enough by its wound before they can capture it, remove the line, treat the injury and nurse it back to health, a spokeswoman for Friends of the Sea Lion said Thursday.

Not Optimistic

But Judi Jones, spokeswoman for the Laguna Beach-based organization that rescues sea lions and other injured sea animals, was not optimistic.

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“We’ve done this so many times before, we know it’s almost futile,” Jones said.

Sea lions are naturally scared of humans and it takes very little strength for even a weakened sea lion to slip off a buoy, into the water and out of the reach of rescuers, she explained.

“Each time we do go out and don’t get one, we realize (the difficulty involved). But then time passes and we feel bad and we have to try again,” she said.

The 5-foot-long sea lion--estimated to be about 2 to 4 years old and weighing probably 130 to 150 pounds--is being cut by fishing line wrapped tightly around its neck. While the line is not snagged on anything, every time the sea lion moves its muscles, the line cuts a little deeper, Jones said.

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“If it were to get tight enough to go through a vein or his trachea, he could die.”

Al Taucher, a member of the state Fish and Game Commission, said he was distressed to hear about the sea lion but said the health and safety of marine mammals falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Representatives for the federal agency could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.

Fishing line, hooks and gill nets are common dangers to sea lions as well as other marine animals, according to Jones.

“The problem is sea lions are very opportunistic. They see fish (on the hooks and in nets) and to them, it says ‘free meal,’ ” she said. The sea lions then become tangled in the lines and nets, or the hooks become lodged in their mouths.

What would be ideal, Jones said, would be development of dissolvable fishing line, similar to dissolvable sutures.

It is not known how many sea lions or other animals fall prey to such gadgets of man “because we don’t see them all,” Jones said. But she added, “It’s a fairly common occurrence.”

The sea lion in Newport Harbor is receiving lots of attention only because it likes to bask atop a prominent buoy that is passed by virtually every boat that enters or exits the harbor, she said.

An observer Thursday said the animal appeared strong and that its skin was healing over the line, which remains wrapped around its neck.

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That was not good news, Jones said, because the line is still doing damage under the skin. And if the animal is caught, it will just require more treatment to cut the line out and medicate the wound, she said.

Friends of the Sea Lion first heard about the latest tangled animal from boaters and the Orange County Sheriff Department’s Harbor Patrol about 6 weeks ago.

Organization members tried to rescue the animal with a net several weeks ago, but it slid into the water when the Harbor Patrol boat they were on approached it. One Friends board member, John Cunningham, even jumped into the water and onto the buoy. He tried to hide long enough for the sea lion to return, but the animal would not come back, Jones said.

Another rescue attempt is planned for Saturday, if the sea lion is still on the buoy then, she said.

The rescuers cannot tranquilize the sea lion to capture it.

The tranquilizing drug takes a few minutes to take effect, and the sea lion’s instinct after being shot would be to get into the water, Jones said. As mammals, “they’re air breathers like you and me,” and if they get drowsy in the water, they can drown, she said.

Rescuers also must be wary. Even in a weakened state, a sea lion’s jaws have four times the biting power of a Doberman pinscher, she said.

POSSIBLE TRIM

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Most of the injured sea lions the Friends have been able to capture and nurse back to health at their facility have been caught once the animals ventured onto land. Of the eight to 10 times they have tried to rescue an animal on a buoy, they have succeeded only once, when the sea lion was tangled in a net that was attached to the buoy and could not swim away.

The others never made it to shore and were never seen again, so Jones assumes they eventually drowned.

Jones said publicity about the latest tangled sea lion is prompting calls from the public. “It’s drawing attention to the problem,” she said. But in the meantime, the sea lion remains hurt and in the harbor.

“We keep trying to come up with better ways to do it (capture the sea lion), but so far we haven’t been able to,” Jones said. “It’s not a happy situation.”


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