Headless Sea Lions Are Washing Up in British Columbia

Biologists and local beachgoers who have encountered the decapitated marine mammals suggest humans may be to blame

Steller sea lions sitting on rocks on the shore of Campbell River in British Columbia, Canada.
Steller sea lions sitting on rocks on the shore of Campbell River in British Columbia, Canada. Moelyn Photos via Getty Images

In British Columbia, a grisly sight has been turning up on the pebbly beaches of Vancouver Island: decapitated sea lions. Local beachgoer Deborah Short tells Simon Little of Global News that she has come upon five headless carcasses between March 20 and June 10.

Short tells Global News the missing heads appeared to have been severed cleanly, suggesting the mutilated marine mammals were the work of humans rather than killer whales or sharks. She adds that since she began attempting to raise awareness of the issue, she’s heard from others who have encountered the same gruesome phenomenon between the towns of Nanaimo and Campbell River.

Speaking with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Anna Hall, a marine mammal biologist with Seaview Marine Sciences, says she’s aware of the situation and notes that the dead sea lions she’s seen in photos have been Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus), which are listed as a species of “special concern” under the Canadadian Species at Risk Act. Hall tells CBC News that she also suspects the damage inflicted on the sea lions’ bodies was more than likely caused by humans.

CBC News reports this isn’t the first time that headless sea lions have washed up in Canada. In 2013, four decapitated sea lions were found on Vancouver Island, and in 2014, a dozen seal carcasses were found missing their heads along the St. Lawrence River in Quebec.

Sea lions are a crucial part of the marine ecosystem in the Salish Sea because the blubbery marine mammals are the main food source for transient killer whales, Hall tells CBC News.

Thomas Sewid of Pacific Balance Marine Management, a Canadian First-Nations led organization pushing to revive commercial hunting of seals and sea lions, tells Global News he thinks poachers are behind the disfigured carcasses. He says sea lion skulls are worth as much as $1,000 on the black market.

I don’t think it’s a First Nation because the First Nations would take the hides for the drums, and would also remove the penile bone of the males, which they haven’t done,” Sewid, who belongs to the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation, tells Global News.

In Canada, First Nations people are legally allowed to harvest seals and sea lions for cultural purposes. Sewid’s group posted some of the photos of sea lions missing their heads to social media to urge hunters to use better practices, reports Marc Kitteringham of the Campbell River Mirror.

Sewid argues that a legal commercial seal and sea lion hunt would allow First Nations to generate revenue and, more controversially, that reducing the seal and sea lion population would benefit local salmon, which have been declining, per the Mirror.

In a statement, Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) tells Global News it has recorded a “slight increase” in reports of dead sea lions around Vancouver island, but noted that it was a “fairly common occurrence.”

The DFO statement, as quoted by CBC News, says dead sea lions usually wash ashore intact, but that sometimes the corpses are tampered with once beached. “If this is determined to have been done in an effort to knowingly tamper with evidence,” the agency adds, “this would be an offence under the Criminal Code of Canada.”

The agency’s statement concludes by saying its office of Conservation and Protection is aware of the social media reports of headless sea lions and is “monitoring these closely.”

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