Twenty years ago this summer, Seattle’s waterfront ran red. Over the course of several months, one flippered body after another washed ashore, many at the southern end of Bainbridge Island. And by July, the National Marine Fisheries Service had collected the carcasses of nearly 30 California sea lions. The number alone was enough to grab headlines, but it was the way in which some of those animals died that caused a spokesperson to proclaim that the agency was taking the situation “very seriously”: A number of the animals had been shot. “People have been questioned,” the spokesperson told The Seattle Times. “This is an ongoing investigation.”
Shocking as that rash of deaths may have been, it wasn’t an anomaly. Despite the fact that the Marine Mammal Protection Act makes it illegal for a private citizen to “take” sea lions and seals—known collectively as pinnipeds—several are shot and killed in Western Washington waterways every year. But unless you know someone who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, chances are you won’t hear about it. In fact, in the past two years 44 of the animals were gunned down in Washington and Oregon alone, and not a single person has been prosecuted for any of those shootings.
How can that be? you ask. Just go all CSI: Puget Sound and trace the bullets back to the gun that fired them. Seems simple enough, but to do that you have to at least have a gun on which to run ballistics. And to do that you have to have a suspect. NOAA is tasked with enforcing the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but with a patrol area that includes all of Puget Sound and the Columbia River, catching anyone in the act is virtually impossible. “Oftentimes these shootings occur in very isolated areas with no witnesses,” says Jim Houseman, who heads NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement for the Washington district. “So until we can understand the language of marine mammals and they can serve as witnesses, yeah, this will be a problem.”
Houseman has a wry sense of humor, but he’s earned it. In 16 years with NOAA, he’s participated in just one successful prosecution of a marine mammal shooting. And though the agency is in the process of expanding its staff this summer, as of mid-May, he had just three agents to investigate crimes against pinnipeds in Western Washington. “At the end of the day, you can only act on the evidence,” he says. “If all you have is a dead animal on a beach somewhere that’s been hit with shotgun rounds, there really isn’t anything you can do to try to identify a subject. We don’t have drones overhead.”
The authorities can’t even say that they find every seal and sea lion that gets shot. Dyanna Lambourn of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife conducts the vast majority of necropsies on dead marine mammals found in Puget Sound, and it’s not easy work. In most cases, she’s examining a body—which, by the way, can be anywhere from 500 to 1,500 pounds—on a beach as the rain falls and waves crash around her. And pinnipeds have thick skin that makes it difficult to find an entrance wound in the first place. That’s not even factoring in the challenges presented by the effects of scavenging and decomposition. “Sometimes the animal is so far gone in terms of decomposition,” she says, “that residents near the beach just want it removed.”
There’s little doubt in Houseman’s mind, though, who’s committing the killings. Seals and sea lions gotta eat. As much as 10 percent of their diet comes from salmon and steelhead, putting them in direct competition with commercial and recreational fishermen—a select few of whom, the theory goes, execute the slippery mammals who have the nerve to steal a fish off their line. “It can be frustrating if somebody fights a fish for 15 minutes, gets it right up to the boat, and then, whoosh, a sea lion comes up and grabs it.” He’s not excusing the crime, just recognizing the power struggle that can lead to it.
The problem is stopping it. In the absence of next-level law enforcement tech—or halfway adequate staffing—NOAA has employed other tactics to reduce illegal marine mammal takes. And they don’t all put the onus on humans. The agency’s Office of Protected Resources works to identify, trap, and move “problem pinnipeds,” or repeat offenders that eat more than their fair share of endangered salmon and steelhead. Ironically, the agency is authorized to euthanize those animals that can’t be controlled, but a spokesperson says the agency is currently working on a set of guidelines for more effective nonlethal deterrents.
(Speaking of nonlethal deterrents: While fishermen can’t kill or injure a seal or a sea lion, they can scare them away from their gear with everything from paintball guns to cattle prods.)
The topic of pinniped shootings is an emotional one for Robin Lindsey. As a volunteer for Seal Sitters, a West Seattle–based group that responds to reports of stranded and dead marine mammals, she’s seen the bodies. “Whether it’s one shooting or 50,” she says, “it’s equally shocking.” It’s also tricky for her to talk about. Because maddening as the killings may be, she worries that calling out a few unscrupulous fishermen risks sullying the names of the rest. “I have a neighbor who’s an avid fisherman,” she says. “He fishes down here at the Seacrest Pier all the time, and he’s always dealing with seals. But he knows they’re just trying to eat too.”
Given the dynamics at play—animals searching for food, fishermen searching for fish, law enforcement searching for perpetrators—it can seem like a problem without a solution. But everyone agrees that the best way to curb the killings may be the simplest. “I hate to be cliche,” says NOAA spokesperson Allyson Rogers. “But if you see something, say something.” Because, as Houseman will remind you, the seals sure can’t.