A video circulating on social media is renewing the debate around the region’s sea lion population and its conflicts with the local fishing industry.
The video depicts fisherman Allan Marsden lighting the fuse on a so-called “bear banger” and throwing it into a raft of sea lions.
The device explodes, and the dozens of sea lions vanish under the water. Someone off-camera can be heard laughing and saying: “That was awesome.”
The video, posted to the Facebook group of the Pacific Balance Pinniped Society, a group of First Nations and commercial fishers advocating for a West Coast seal hunt, has drawn messages of support from other fishers and condemnation from people who describe the action as cruel.
WARNING: This video may be disturbing to some viewers. A B.C. fisherman launches a ‘bear banger’ into the water near a pack of sea lions.
Marsden said the video was shot while he and his crew were on the water trying to take samples of roe for the fishing industry ahead of the upcoming herring fishery.
He said the area was so overwhelmed with sea lions that fishermen were barely able to get a net in the water.
He argued the device wouldn’t harm the sea lions and that his crew had done nothing wrong.
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“It’s a bear banger, the same thing you would take in the bush if you were walking upstream in the summertime to protect yourself from bears — nothing more and nothing less,” said Marsden.
“There were no guns involved. I don’t have a gun on the boat and have no intention of packing one on the boat.”
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Marsden said there were up to 500 sea lions in the area and that the bear banger was actually ineffective, as the sea lions returned within minutes.
He further claimed the action was necessary to keep his team safe.
“I do have every intention in the world of protecting myself and my crew from being attacked by sea lions,” he said.
“That’s all we were doing there. I have already been attacked by sea lions, I have already been bitten by a sea lion and I don’t have any plans of letting it happen again.”
In an emailed statement, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said it was aware of the video.
It said that officers from Nanaimo and Campbell River were investigating to see if it contravened regulations that make it illegal to disturb, harm or kill marine mammals.
The agency also took to Twitter on Thursday with a “reminder” that “it is illegal to disturb
#seals, #sealions or other marine mammals. This includes the use of acoustic deterrents such as seal bombs or other explosives.”
Dr. Martin Haulena, head veterinarian with the Vancouver Aquarium, called the video “disturbing” and disputed Marsden’s claim that a bear banger would not injure the animals.
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He said he has seen a number of cases of sea lions with injuries to their eyes, face and jaws, along with their hearing.
“There’s definitely potential for damage there. Everything from trauma to hearing damage. And the closer the animals are to that device, the more damage and potential damage there can be,” he said.
“Under water, that noise travels very, very quickly, and the closer the animals are to that, the more effect they’re going to have. You’re going to get hearing damage, some of it permanent.”
Haulena added that he has worked with sea lions extensively across the B.C. coast and has not known them to be particularly aggressive to people on boats.
“There’s never been any hint of being mobbed or being swarmed,” he said. “But I suppose there’s a potential for that to happen if someone’s doing something with a wild animal, for sure.”
“Just from that video, it didn’t seem like that’s what was happening with the sea lions. It seemed like a very normal kind of interaction with sea lions that come up to boats.”
The video emerged just two days after the Vancouver Aquarium said it was treating a seal that had been shot in the face, with the organization warning that the animals were being targeted as a part of a “PR war.”
It also comes as the Pacific Balance Pinniped Society makes its case to the federal government calling for a commercial seal hunt due to what it describes as an “explosion” in the seal and sea lion population on the coast.
According to DFO, the current harbour seal population on the coast of about 105,000 is about 10 times what it was in the early 1970s. It estimates there are about 48,000 Steller sea lions on the coast during the winter.
However, the Vancouver Aquarium says the population is stable and, rather than an “explosion,” represents the natural population size of the animals, which, prior to the 1970s, had been aggressively hunted and culled.