On a recent day, among the dozen or so animals receiving care at Sausalito’s Marine Mammal Center, were three sea lions all suffering from similar afflictions — they had all been shot.
The three animals were separately rescued at points around the Bay Area by the center’s veterinarian team. Two of the patients each lost an eye from gunshot wounds and a third caught a round of buckshot in the flipper.
"We only have 15 animals on site right now and three of them are gunshots," said Dr. Cara Field, a veterinarian at the center. "That’s really a high percentage of animals."
The largest of the three animals was nicknamed Bluegrass by his rescuers. He was discovered at Pier 39 with a severe wound to the face which veterinarians later determined was from a gunshot. The severity of the injury meant its left eye had to be removed.
A second gunshot victim named Transom also lost a left eye. An X-ray showed that a third animal, a young sea lion named Usain, had tiny bbs lodged in a rear flipper, likely from a shotgun blast. To add insult to injury, it had also been bitten by a shark.
"Because these animals have a lot of challenges as it is," Field said looking over Usain’s X-ray, "something like this, it’s just unnecessary."
The staff of the rescue hospital said it didn’t know the source of the gunshots. Because of the transitory nature of marine mammals, it’s difficult to track down the shooters.
"By the time we rescue the animals we have no idea how they got shot, when they got shot," said Shawn Johnson, head of the center’s veterinary team. "Sometimes the bullets or pellets we find in radiographs could’ve been there for weeks or months or years."
Despite the high percentage of gunshot victims currently onsite, the center said the number of gunshots to marine mammals was lower than it has been in recent years. It’s believed that fishermen who encounter the animals while competing for the same fish may be behind at least some of the shootings.
"The big problem here is that there is a competition for the same resources for the same fish," Johnson said. "It’s what’s most likely’s causing these human interactions."
Johnson said fishermen are also often the ones who will notify the center of marine mammals with injuries and will help direct the rescue teamsto the animals. Representatives of the fishing industry said they don’t condone anyone shooting the animals.
"Nobody in the fishing industry supports vigilante sea lion justice," said Noah Oppenheim, director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen. "It’s just not how we operate."
In Oregon, state officials approved some controversial legal killing of sea lions who were threatening populations of endangered salmon returning to spawn at Willamette Falls. Those limited killings are carried about the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
California doesn’t have a similar concentration of salmon threatened by sea lions, and so no such program is proposed. Oppenheim said the problem with struggling fish populations isn’t due to sea lions.
"There’s conflict pure and simple," Oppenheim said, "but we need to resolve that conflict by producing more fish so everyone can eat, fishermen included."
The three patients at the Marine Mammal Center were being nursed back to health with the goal of releasing them. Field said the two animals that lost eyes would be able to return to the wild and once again forage for food. On a day last week, a team of staff and volunteers from the center drove Bluegrass and Transom to the Point Reyes National Seashore for release.
As the cage door opened, Transom quickly lumbered down the beach and into the water. But Bluegrass lingered outside the pen, eyeing the rescuers and appearing to consider the possibility of climbing back into the cage. Eventually the animal made its way down the shore, and jumped into the surf — quickly disappearing from view.
"It’s the reward that we get for all the hard work that we put in to caring for these animals," Johnson said.