Four sea lions with evidence of gunshot wounds have been recovered from Malibu beaches in the last two months, wildlife rescuers said Thursday.
The two such sea lions found this month had confirmed gunshot bodies, though it is unclear if they were shot before or after they died, said David Bard, director of the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro, a hospital that treats the animals.
Bullets were pulled from two of the four sea lions, and the other two had evidence of gunshot wounds, said Jonsie Ross, a marine mammal stranding coordinator at the California Wildlife Center.
“Almost every year we get something like this,” said Dave Reilly, a special agent at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who is investigating the incidents.
The cases are difficult ones to make, he said, because bullets sometimes exit the animals, suspects are difficult to find and ballistics can’t always be done.
Fisherman can deter animals from damaging their catch and gear while they’re working but are not allowed to harm them, he said.
Sea lions are protected by the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act. Those caught and convicted of killing an animal could face jail time and be fined thousands of dollars, Ross said.
When fishing season begins, the Caifornia Wildlife Center gets more animals that have been shot than at any other time of year, she said. Residents along the coast often call the center with reports of gunshots and flashes of light coming from fishing boats in the area.
“The sea lions aren’t shooting each other. Someone is doing it,” she said. “Every year this happens, people need to know what’s going on.”
Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Assn., recently spoke with squid fisherman in the area who said they weren’t aware of any shooting related to their operation.
“It’s really unfortunate that the squid fleet has been implied to be guilty (simply putting two and two together) without proof,” Steele said in an email.
Although fishermen can use nonlethal methods to protect their gear and catch, she wrote, association members don’t condone illegal activity.
Corbin Hanson, who has been fishing squid in California for 10 years, said he hasn’t seen any such behavior on the water all season.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re kind of being targeted for these allegations,” he said. “I can only assume because we conduct the majority of our operation at night, there’s a lot of mystery in what we do.”
Squid are attracted to light, he said. While the light boat attracts squid, a second consolidates and nets them, he said. Sea lions and other animals are often attracted because fishermen are harvesting one of their food sources, making it easy for them to come and snatch a bite, he said.
Historically, the Malibu area is a popular area for the squid to spawn and makes for a faster delivery to markets in the morning. The boats operate in a very small area, he said, so firearms discharging would be a safety concern for fishermen as well.
Mammals have been shot in previous years, he said, and there always seems to be the question of why it’s happening and who is responsible.
“We’re an easy target,” he said.
Two people were recently charged with harrassing marine mammals and were fined $525, Reilly said. One used a seal bomb -- a small explosive device used to frighten away mammals -- and the other shot at dolphins with a pellet gun, while they weren’t fishing.
“This is a priority issue, people killing marine mammals. We do as much as we can,” Reilly said.
Information from the public is important to investigating cases in a timely manner, he said. Tips can be reported to the NOAA hotline at (800) 853-1964.
[For the record, 4:56 p.m. Oct. 24: An earlier version of this post misspelled NOAA agent Dave Reilly’s last name as Reilley.]