Federal officials are still seeking information and have increased the reward after nearly two dozen sea lions have been found dead in the Copper River Delta area.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been tracking the deaths of Steller sea lions in Prince William Sound this summer. So far, 22 sea lions have been found, with signs of human interaction, including gunshot wounds. NOAA says it’s unlikely that they were lost during subsistence hunts.
The agency is offering a $20,000 reward for information about the potential culprit or culprits. That’s quadruple the offer from June, when the agency first asked the public for help in the case.
Kim Raum-Suryan, a marine mammal specialist with NOAA Fisheries, said in an email that the animals’ deaths are still under investigation, but they’re likely not lost from subsistence hunts because of the brief time window in which they were found and the large number of them.
“None of the animals had evidence of attempted recovery or subsistence harvest,” she said.
Steller sea lions are split into two subpopulations — eastern and western, divided at 144 degrees of longitude. Both groups were once listed as endangered, but the eastern population has recovered and was removed from the endangered species list in 2013. The western population has struggled to recover more and remains on the list. The Copper River Delta sea lions are part of that western population.
Raum-Suryan said the western population — which stretches from 144 degrees of latitude all the way west to the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands — was estimated at about 52,932 animals in 2020. That’s less than a quarter of what it was in the late 1970s, when it was estimated to be 220,000 to 265,000 animals.
Like all marine mammals in the U.S., Steller sea lions have been protected by the federal government since the Marine Mammal Protection Act passed in the 1970s. They declined sharply between the 1970s and early 2000s, with a variety of factors threatening them. Commercial fishermen incidentally killed many in the Bering Sea and North Pacific historically, though changes in fishing techniques, areas and time have helped, in addition to fishery observer coverage. The only people allowed to hunt them legally are Alaska Natives, for subsistence and traditional purposes.
However, there have been reports of illegal shooting in areas where the sea lions interact with commercial fisheries, especially in the Copper River Delta. In 2018, two men were convicted of harassing and killing sea lions with shotguns in 2015. One of the men, Jon Nichols, served as captain of a fishing vessel, and the other, Theodore Turgeon, was a crewman on that vessel. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Nichols regularly instructed crew members to shoot at sea lions in the Copper River district, and both men actively shot at the animals. Both men were sentenced to probation, house arrest, and were given fines.
Raum-Suryan said NOAA does not know who is responsible for the killings. The animals found so far have been a mix of males and females, including both adults and juveniles, and the total so far is likely low because not all animals that die at sea will wash ashore to be spotted by surveyors.
Anyone with information about the illegal killing of endangered Steller sea lions in the Copper River Delta should contact the investigating agent at 907-250-5188, or through NOAA’s Enforcement Hotline at 800-853-1964.