Some First Nations around Vancouver Island are given licences to shoot sea lions and remove whiskers and hides for ceremonial purposes, but Paul Cottrell, Fisheries and Oceans marine mammal coordinator, doubts if the mysterious cluster of headless sea lion bodies recently found on northern Vancouver Island has anything to do with an authorized First Nations harvest.
"Under the licence conditions they have to report the kill and the species and, typically, we don't have Steller sea lions on the licence," Cottrell said.
The exception is in some northern areas, where there are few California sea lions, and DFO scientists are consulted about conservation needs, he said.
"Then we may allow a few Stellers, but very few."
Steller sea lions are listed as animals of special concern in Canada, and as threatened in the U.S.
Licences are approved by area managers, said Cottrell, who could not say how many have been issued this year.
"I don't know the number off the top of my head, but it's not a large number," he said.
Licence conditions require the animals be killed in a humane manner.
Some First Nations use sea lion whiskers to make traditional masks and the hide is used for drum-making.
Three bullet-ridden and mutilated Steller sea lions turned up in Campbell River and Comox over the last week.
"Two were decapitated and the third one had half the head and part of the skin removed," Cottrell said.
A headless harbour seal was found in Barkley Sound earlier this week.
"One of the difficult things is the animals might have died elsewhere and washed up on the beach and then been decapitated," Cottrell said.
Since the discoveries, there have been reports of dead sea lions from various locations around Vancouver Island, but, with decomposition, it is difficult to tell how some of them died, Cottrell said.
"We are going back over the last couple of months trying to piece this together," he said.
"We are getting lots of calls ... It's really good because we can keep tabs on what is going on."
Salmon farmers are also permitted to shoot nuisance marine mammals, but few farms now resort to killing animals, Cottrell said.
DFO figures show that between April and June, the latest statistics available, two California sea lions were shot.
Six harbour seals, two California sea lions and an unidentified marine mammal accidentally drowned after becoming entangled in predator nets.
Mary Ellen Walling, B.C. Salmon Farmers Association executive director, said it is highly unlikely any of the farms would know anything about mutilated sea lions.
"We are also quite concerned about this situation. This is not how we operate at all. Our goal is to reduce interactions by using methods such as predator nets," she said.
Anyone who sees a dead, distressed or sick marine mammal can call the reporting hotline at 1-800-465-4336.