Federal authorities say seven Steller sea lions were found shot to death in the surf near Cordova after the Copper River salmon fishing season got underway in mid-May.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Friday announced a reward up to $5,000 for anyone who provides information that leads to a civil penalty or criminal conviction. The agency includes the National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees protections of marine mammals like sea lions.
Cordova, located on the eastern edge of Prince William Sound against the Chugach Mountains, is home to the Copper River’s prized sockeye runs and a busy fishery that kicks off the summer commercial salmon season.
The dead animals, found along a beach on the southeast end of the Copper River Delta, were reported a day after the fishery opened, according to Glenn Charles, assistant special agent in charge for NOAA’s Alaska law enforcement office.
An investigation is underway.
Agency staffers spotted the sea lions during an overflight of the fishing grounds at the mouth of the river, Charles said, and determined the animals had been shot, and no attempts had been made to salvage any meat.
The reward is to encourage people to come forward, he said. “I believe there’s over 500 boats registered for the Copper River fishery and they all fish up and down the area. Chances are good that somebody saw something.”
The sea lions around Cordova are part of a population protected under the Endangered Species Act. Killing marine mammals also violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The bodies of 15 Steller sea lions were found in Cordova in 2015, also at the start of the Copper River salmon season. A fishing boat captain and a member of his crew were later charged with using a shotgun to harass and kill the sea lions. That case prompted the start of federal overflights during the Copper River opener, Charles said.
He declined to answer specifically when asked if agents suspect fishermen were involved in the shooting.
The dead animals were not seen before fishing started, Charles said. Because they were found in the surf, he said, it’s “highly likely” they were in the water when they were shot.
NOAA asked anyone with information to contact the investigating agent directly at 907-250-5188 or through NOAA’s Enforcement Hotline at 800-853-1964.