Sea lions are smart animals. They know exactly where to go to get an easy meal, and among their favorite targets are fishing boats. They steal small bait or huge salmon off lines — and who could blame them? Work smart, not hard, so the saying goes.
But fishermen are so angry about the sea lions stealing their fish, they're actually shooting them with shotguns.
Let's start with one sea lion in particular. Meet Cruz.
Cruz the sea lion was found on a beach in Santa Cruz, California, back in 2013. He was underweight and appeared exhausted. One of his eyes was missing. Rescuers took him to the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. There, an X-ray revealed several metal shards from a shotgun blast lodged in his skull.
Today Cruz is living at the Shedd Aquarium, because he is completely blind and unable to survive in the wild. He is lucky that he even survived the ordeal at all.
According to NOAA Fisheries, the government agency in charge of protecting marine mammals, 700 California sea lions were found with gunshot or stab wounds between 1998 and 2017. And there are probably many other victims who simply died without ever being found. The perpetrators are almost certainly fishermen.
National Geographic interviewed a Santa Cruz-based fishermen who only spoke on the condition of anonymity. He said that a shotgun is the only thing that keeps sea lions from stealing his catch.
"I've tried a slingshot," he said, "I've tried a few things — they don't care." The fisherman justified his use of the shotgun by saying, "It's my fishery. I have a right to go after my catch."
That Santa Cruz fisherman may claim he has "a right to go after his catch," but according to the law, shooting a sea lion with a shotgun is a crime.
Back in the first half of the 20th century, shooting sea lions was routine for fishermen on the West Coast. But by the 1960s, the sea lion population was perilously small. This was one of the motivations for the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, which outlawed hunting, injuring or harassing sea lions and other marine mammals.
Thanks to the act, sea lions rebounded dramatically. Today the population is healthy, but the law still stands. Killing a sea lion is punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $25,000.
Unfortunately, it's very difficult to actually prosecute someone for violating the law, because there are often no witnesses willing to testify. Since 2003, only five people have been convicted of injuring or killing a sea lion in California. But based on the number of bodies, we know there are far more perpetrators.
Earlier this year, a dead pregnant bottlenose dolphin washed up on a beach in Mississippi. Further examination revealed a bullet lodged in the animal's lung.
According to NOAA, at least 24 dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico have been killed with a gun or another lethal object since 2002.
In one case, the perpetrator turned out to be a child with a bow and arrow. But it is possible that other incidents were perpetrated by fishermen, as dolphins have been known to steal fishermen's catch, like sea lions do.
There are two potential solutions to this problem.
Law enforcement should find ways to better enforce the MMPA, or try to promote non-lethal methods of deterring sea lions from stealing fishermen's catch.
There is hope on both fronts.
In 2005, a fisherman was successfully prosecuted for shooting sea lions, thanks to two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agents who went undercover as fishermen on his boat. The perpetrator got two months in federal prison, a $5,000 fine and 250 hours of community service.
NOAA also says there has been an increase in fishermen inquiring about non-lethal methods of deterring sea lions. But they will need help from creative engineers who can come up with better deterrents.
If any inventors who are passionate about sea lions are currently reading this, now's your time to shine.