Anna Hall hopes there is another way to explain it, but pictures she has seen indicate a number of sea lions found from Nanaimo to Campbell River were deliberately decapitated.
Hall, a marine-mammal zoologist with Victoria- and California-based Sea View Marine Services, said there appears to be five or six sea lions that have had their heads cut off by people.
“If it was a single animal, then there may be a reason that was much less sinister to explain it,” she said. “For instance, the animal was dead at sea and got run over by a boat.”
The idea of a predator causing the decapitation could also be considered, she said.
“Particularly transient killer whales, they can sometimes practise on younger animals, can practise honing their skills,” Hall said. “However, that would be very unusual to have a practise event on an adult sea lion, particularly multiple sea lions.”
It would also be unusual for one decapitated animal to be seen on one beach and then wash up on another, she said.
“I’m open to other hypotheses,” Hall said. “I desperately hope that there is no connection to the illegal wildlife trade.”
In May, the head was removed from a carcass that had washed up in Vic West, sparking speculation that someone had taken a trophy for themselves or to sell. In 2013, at least four sea lions were found without heads in a five-month period.
The cause of death in the recent incidents has yet to be determined and Hall hopes the Department of Fisheries and Oceans investigates.
“The pattern is what is most disturbing,” she said. “It’s appalling to think that anybody would think this, in any way, shape or form, is appropriate action toward a live or a deceased animal.”
Another issue is that a few of the animals are Steller sea lions, which are listed as a species of concern, Hall said.
“They have the full protection of the Fisheries Act, the marine mammal regulations and the Species at Risk Act.”
Hunting sea lions is banned in B.C., with controlled exceptions for Indigenous rights to harvest for food, social and ceremonial reasons. If an animal was shot in the head, decapitating the animal would remove evidence of illegal hunting.
According to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, there has been a slight increase in reports of dead sea lions on Island shores. However, spokeswoman Louise Girourard said it’s not uncommon for intact dead sea lions to wash ashore.
“Typically, the animals are washed up intact, however, from time to time individuals may tamper with the animals once beached,” Girouard said in an email. “If this is determined to have been done in an effort to knowingly tamper with evidence, this would be an offence under the Criminal Code of Canada.”
Sea lions are sometimes targeted by commercial fishermen. The animals are known to take fish from nets.
Hall said there are many different perspectives and points of view along the coast regarding sea lions, but it is “horrible” to see them treated this way. There have been calls for a cull of seals and sea lions in order to help salmon populations.
— With a file from Roxanne Egan-Elliott