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The team was called to an area near Kitsilano Beach Friday morning after a member of the public saw the animal in distress.
“She was in really, really poor condition, didn’t want to open her eyes, quite skinny, poor (mental activity), very, very lethargic, very weak,” aquarium head veterinarian Dr. Martin Haulena said.
The sea lion, who Haulena said is about three years old, was sedated and taken to the rescue centre for treatment, where X-rays revealed she had been shot in the head.
Haulena said one of her eyes was destroyed, and staff worried her central nervous system could also be damaged.
“This is a really critical animal with a very, very poor prognosis right now. We’re hoping the pain meds and the antibiotic fluids have some effect to stabilize her over the next few days,” Haulena said, adding they hope to do a more in-depth examination next week depending on how she is doing.
Shootings involving sea lions and harbour seals are, unfortunately, not uncommon in British Columbia, Haulena said. The rescue centre treats an average of five or six pinnipeds a year for bullet or shotgun wounds.
He said some people appear to like shooting them for “no particular reason,” while others “may perceive the pinnipeds seals or sea lions as competition for fish resources and are trying to take matters into their own hands.
“The big problem here is that the gun doesn’t kill the animal — it leads to a whole lot of suffering, a lot of the animals have permanent visual deficits because of that or are blind or at least don’t have enough vision to be able to be released,” he said.
“So we do have a few of those animals living at the aquarium that has offered a home for animals that can’t be released.”
Jordan Reichert with the Animal Alliance of Canada said the incident was “terribly sad,” but not surprising.
“There are people on the water, generally fishermen, who often view seals and sea lions as pests and competing with them for herring or salmon or what have you,” he said.
“It’s not unheard of them shooting at them or using other methods to scare them or injure them to get them away from the fish. So it’s an ongoing concern, and it’s completely unacceptable, though, and it’s also illegal.”
Reichert called for stricter enforcement from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, but said it is difficult for the agency to monitor the problem given the massive area the animals inhabit.
Pacific Balance Marine Management, which advocates for a First Nations-led commercial seal hunt, is among those arguing the seal and sea lion populations on the west coast have grown too large.
President Thomas Sewid said injured sea lions like the one found Friday should be humanely euthanized rather than rescued.
Seals and sea lions, Sewid said, are salmon specialists who, he argued, play a major role in declining fish stocks.
“As a commercial fisherman for 45-plus years, and I’m speaking for all the commercial fishermen, we’ve seen those rats with flippers’ populations explode,” he said.
“One hundred per cent of those salmon-specialist pinnipeds — seals and sea lions — in estuaries, rivers and lakes in some cases, and in chokepoints where migrations of salmon take place, juvenile and adult, they need to be removed so that we can start protecting the salmon properly.”
Sewid said before European contact, Indigenous peoples harvested large numbers of seals and sea lions, and were part of keeping the ecosystem in balance.
The argument that pinniped populations are out of control is contentious.
A recent DFO estimate found about 105,000 harbour seals on B.C.’s coast — about 10 times the number recorded in the early 1970s, while a 2013 survey of Steller sea lions estimated a population of about 39,000 growing at more than 5.5 per cent per year.
But conservationists say that while it’s clear the populations are growing, it is a matter of recovery, not overpopulation.
“They say there’s an overpopulation and they tend to start their date of population measurements from around the 1960s, 1970s, when the seal and sea lion population had been decimated by open hunting by fishermen and their populations were down to about 10,000,” Reichert said.
“But historically, they were around 100,000 or so. And so the science shows that the populations have rebounded since the government instituted regulation on the hunting of seals and sea lions and has basically been restored to the historic levels.”
Back at the aquarium, Haulena praised the efforts of the bystander who reported the injured animal, along with the work of the rescue team and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Anyone who sees a marine mammal they believe to be in distress should avoid approaching it and call the rescue centre’s hotline at 604-258-SEAL, he added.
Editor’s note: This is a corrected story. A previous version reported Thomas Sewid as president of the incorrect organization.