Visitors flock to Point Reyes on the Northern California coast for sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean, and to catch a glimpse of sea lions that luxuriate on the sand there — often so still that the huge mammals look like boulders until they move or start barking.
But recently, park visitors found a California sea lion that was motionless for a much more gruesome reason: It was dead, and its body was riddled with bullet holes, park rangers from Point Reyes National Seashore wrote in a Facebook post on Thursday.
The visitors reported the dead animal to the visitor center, which then investigated.
“It was safe to say that it was shot and most likely died from gunshot wounds,” said John Dell’Osso, the seashore’s chief of interpretation and resource education, the Marin Independent Journal reports.
But catching the shooter is unlikely. Wildlife rescuers said hundreds of sea lions have been shot in the region in recent decades.
“There is not a lot that we know,” Dell’Osso said.
Experts at the California Academy of Sciences used markings on the sea lion’s body to figure out that it was a 7-year-old male, born on San Miguel Island, a rugged channel isle off the Santa Barbara coast where many seafaring mammals breed. That includes northern fur seals, harbor seals, northern elephant seals and more, according to the National Park Service.
More than 70,000 California sea lions — as well as 50,000 northern elephant seals and 5,000 northern fur seals — breed on the island every year, according to the National Park Service.
Point Reyes park rangers said that NOAA Fisheries Service researchers had consistently spotted the now-dead sea lion near San Miguel Island after its birth there.
Park officials said that because the visitors documented the dead seal so well, they were able to establish its full life story
“You are our eyes and ears out in the park and you can make a difference by reporting these sightings to us,” rangers wrote. “If you come across a dead or sick/injured animal in the park, please take pictures and make notes about what you see and where you are and then notify our visitor center staff.”
Sarah Killingsworth, the woman who stumbled upon the animal Nov. 25 while visiting the beach with her son, said she often discovers shotgun shells and bullet casings on the shore, the Independent Journal reports.
“This animal is not an anomaly,” Killingsworth said.
Sea lion killings are a problem beyond California as well. Six sea lions have been shot to death in Puget Sound around Seattle since September, the Associated Press reported.
Marine mammals are protected from being hunted, captured and killed by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, according to NOAA — and breaking that law carries a fine of up to $28,520 and up to a year in prison.
“Marine mammals are an integral part of a healthy ecosystem,” NOAA Fisheries Alaska Regional Administrator Dr. Jim Balsiger said in a statement earlier this year. “Unless it is being harvested for subsistence purposes, or is otherwise authorized, intentionally killing a marine mammal is illegal.”