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Troubled Waters : Shootings of 8 Sea Animals Near San Diego Baffle Investigators

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federal fishery agents are investigating eight reports of sea lions and seals being shot by arrows or harpoons, leading to grisly speculation that someone might be stalking the federally protected animals.

Although it is relatively common for dead or wounded sea lions to wash up on California shores, it is rare for the weapon of attack to be an arrow or harpoon.

Guy Hollstein, an investigator with the National Marine Fisheries’ Service for 10 years, said this is the first such case he has seen.

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“Unless you hit the animal in the heart, it isn’t going to die immediately,” Hollstein said. “It is either going to bleed to death slowly or die an agonizing death from infection. It’s a sickening thing to think about.”

The reports include six sea lions and two seals spotted either in San Diego Bay or just off the coast. Two sea lions were found dead, Hollstein said. The others and the two seals slipped back into the water before they could be captured.

In all eight cases, the animals had been struck by a red-and-white arrow or by a small harpoon. A 12-inch-long, steel-tipped harpoon was pulled from the head of one of the dead sea lions, which washed up at the Silver Strand Beach in Coronado.

The federal Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 makes it illegal to kill sea lions or seals except in rare instances. Commercial fishermen can kill them if they are threatening their catch, equipment or safety--but only after non-lethal means have been used to scare the animals away.

Several Southern California fishermen have been convicted and fined in recent years for killing sea lions, including an Imperial Beach charter boat captain who tossed a small bomb wrapped inside a mackerel into a sea lion’s mouth. He was fined $525 and sentenced to 100 hours of community service.

Hollstein said he has several leads, but declined to elaborate. He said that he doubts that fishermen were to blame because they would probably have used a gun.

Reacting to the eight reported attacks on sea lions and seals in the past 13 weeks, Coast Guard cutters patrolling San Diego waters are watching for anyone harassing sea lions or seals on the buoys and rocks near shore. Federal fishery officials are offering a $2,500 reward for information leading to an arrest.

Denise Springer, spokeswoman for the Sausalito-based Marine Mammal Center, which monitors seal and sea lion deaths from San Luis Obispo to the Oregon border, said about 70 dead sea lions washed ashore last year after suffering gunshots and about 20 more such incidents have been reported this year. But there have been no reports of arrows or harpoons, she said.

Judi Jones, director of operations for the Laguna Beach-based Friends of the Sea Lion, said a sea lion was found dead in Newport Beach last year from a small harpoon wound, the only case of such an attack. She has little sympathy for anyone who kills a sea lion, even fishermen who do so legally under the protection act of 1972.

“These animals were here first, and they’ve got nowhere else to go for food,” she said. “Man in his arrogance thinks the sea is only for us.”

She speculated on who might shoot an arrow or harpoon at a seal or sea lion: “They must be the kind of people who like to torture rabbits or just kill animals for fun.”


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