The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says it’s been a deadly year for marine mammals around Skagway, much more so than any other year.
NOAA reports that carcasses of two Steller sea lions and three harbor seals have been discovered since January; one was shot. Public Affairs Officer Julie Speegle said this is an unusually high number, as the database shows only two deaths have been previously recorded in the area since the early 1990s: a Steller sea lion in 2003 then a harbor seal in 2004.
“So the fact that we found five is highly unusual,” she said.
NOAA Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge Ron Antaya agreed. He said the deaths are being investigated by agents in the Juneau office. He welcomes input from the community to help solve the mystery.
“One Steller sea lion appears to have died from illness,” NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service’s Aleria Jensen, marine mammal stranding coordinator for the Alaska Region, said in a release. “The other Steller sea lion and the three harbor seals showed signs of trauma to the head indicative of marine mammal-human interaction.”
Jensen was out of the office Monday, but Speegle said a bullet was recovered from one of the seals. Another had head trauma indicative of a gunshot wound, but no bullet was recovered.
Of the four with trauma, three were found washed ashore in the Skagway area while the other, a pregnant sea lion, was found floating in Nahku Bay.
Speegle said the most recent seal was found on June 1 with its head missing. No necropsy is scheduled.
Antaya said the seals and sea lions can only be legally killed or harvested for subsistence purposes in a non-wasteful manner.
“There is never a situation where a fisherman can shoot at or kill a harbor seal or sea lion,” Antaya said. This includes if the mammals get caught in nets or fishing gear. He said fishermen should not try to immediately remove caught animals but call the NOAA Marine Mammal Stranding hotline at (877) 925-7773.
Anyone with information about the marine mammal deaths is encouraged to call the 24-hour NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Hotline at (800) 853-1964 or the local office at 586-7225.
“We’re very concerned,” said Speegle. “We’re just trying to find out more about what may have happened to these animals.”
• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.