Local Harbor seal survives gunshot wound

Submitted by The Whale Museum

On Saturday, Jan. 26, a harbor seal was shot during a sport fishing derby in San Juan County. The adult female harbor seal survived a single gunshot wound to the head. Initially reported to the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office, the seal was transferred to the San Juan County Marine Mammal Stranding Network and Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehabilitation Center for transport and stabilization. Though medical care is still required, the seal has shown significant improvement since the day of the shooting and is currently being treated at PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynnwood with the goal of release back to the wild.

The Whale Museum thanks the organizations and individuals who worked to give this seal a second chance, including: San Juan County Sheriff’s Office, Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehab Center, PAWS Wildlife Center, SeaLife Response, Rehabilitation and Research, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, SeaDoc Society, Vancouver Aquarium and Whale Museum/SJCMMSN volunteers.

This incident follows a sharp increase of sea lion gunshot incidents in Puget Sound proper over the winter. While humans shooting seals is not a novel occurrence – humans decimated local pinniped (seal and sea lion) populations in the early 1990s. The recent increase in gunshot cases is a growing concern for the region. Why now? It is likely that the recent shooting spree has been influenced by a rise of negative public sentiment towards these animals and an increased tendency to blame healthy pinniped populations for declines in salmon abundance. The shootings also follow discussions at the government level to consider more invasive population management techniques.

While it is no doubt easier on the conscience to blame something other than humans for resource declines, it is important to note that food web dynamics are extremely complicated and declines in fish stocks are unlikely to be explained by a single contributing factor. Significant knowledge gaps and research priorities were identified in order to inform pinniped population management at the legislative level. For example, stock assessment reports for harbor seals are outdated and there are insufficient data available to assess the current size of harbor seal populations in Washington state. Furthermore, harbor seals are opportunistic predators that feed on over 60 different species of fish, some of which are predators of salmonids such as hake. It is unclear how seal removal would affect salmon abundance, and it is possible that fewer seals available to remove hake or predators of salmon smolts and fingerlings could actually have a negative effect on salmon abundance. It is critical to answer these types of questions before any action – even if legalized – could be considered responsible.

Regardless of one’s opinion of pinniped population management, it is essential that members of the public refrain from taking action into their own hands. The fact remains that marine mammals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, and harassing, touching, moving, feeding, or killing marine mammals is a federal crime. Violations of the MMPA can result in fines of up to $11,000 per incident. Thanks to quick eye-witness reporting and thorough documentation, evidence has been collected to further the investigation.

If you witness a marine mammal shooting, call NOAA Enforcement at 1-800-853-1964. Report all marine strandings (dead or alive) to 1-800-562-8832 (San Juan County) or 1-866-767-6114 (West Coast Region).