More than 20 endangered sea lions have been found dead in the Copper River Delta this summer, many with gunshot wounds. The National Marine Fisheries Service has now quadrupled the reward for information on the illegal killings to $20,000.
Sadie Wright, a biologist with the agency, said the dead animals were found during surveys of the area east of Cordova. This year, she said, it’s an unusually high number.
“We’ve done this for a number of years,” Wright said. “And this year we’ve found a big spike in the number of dead sea lions on the islands there.”
As of June 2, they’d found seven dead sea lions in the area. Since then, at least 15 more have been reported. Wright said by this time in previous years they’d found about three or four.
Steller Sea Lions are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. Killing them is illegal — the only exception is for subsistence hunting by Alaska Native people. Wright said the animals found in Copper River Delta didn’t appear to be harvested for food or craft.
This isn’t the first time numerous sea lions have been killed in the area. Wright said in 2015, fishermen illegally shot sea lions they saw as a threat to their livelihood. She said it’s still unclear what is behind this year’s spike.
“In this case, I don’t know,” she said. “We’re not sure why people would injure or harm or kill sea lions in the area.”
The endangered sea lion population is already facing challenges like the marine heat wave, and Wright said these killings hurt their chances of recovering.
“A lot of these animals that we’re seeing out there dead are young animals in their prime,” she said. “So it’s sad to see them die when there doesn’t seem to be a good cause for it.”
Wright said people can report harm or harassment of marine mammals to NOAA law enforcement at 1-800-853-1964.