Activists with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society say a branding operation in Astoria on Sunday caused one sea lion to die this morning. But the Oregon Department of Fish And Wildlife says there is no evidence supporting the group’s claim.
The sea lion branding program has been operating since 1997. It uses hot irons to sear individual numbers into sea lions’ hides for identification. The program has helped officials ID the sea lions that are eating threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead at Bonneville Dam’s fish ladders so they can be targeted for lethal removal (or adoption by aquariums).
The Sea Shepherd’s “Dam Guardians” are monitoring Astoria docks and Bonneville Dam as part of a campaign against branding and killing sea lions. They reported some sea lions “almost drowned” on a floating trap on Sunday before being put through an “extremely painful branding process” in which “several of the sea lions actually caught fire.”
They reported witnessing the animals “go into shock and start to convulse” after the branding, and today they report that one sea lion, branded with the number 349, died after struggling to swim and disappearing into the water.
Ashley Lenton, a Dam Guardians campaign leader, said the sea lion must have died.
“He never came back up,” Lenton said. “I’m sure his body has been swept into the ocean.”
Jessica Sall of ODFW said it is “highly unlikely” the sea lion died because of being branded – if it died at all.
“We’ve branded 1,400 sea lions and we’ve never seen any signs of distress,” she said. “We haven’t seen any evidence that an animal has died. It very well could have gone underwater and swam away.”
Sall said the 38 sea lions caught in the trap on Sunday were never in any danger of drowning - even though the floating trap was tilting under the weight of an unusually high number of sea lions.
“The trap is designed to carry 50,000 pounds without sinking,” she said.
And the fire seen on the backs of the sea lions in photos of the branding operation is from the sea lions’ fur burning under the hot iron, said Sall. But the burning doesn’t hurt sea lions the way it would hurt a person.
“We have to be careful about not ascribing emotions to actions in sea lions,” she said. “We cant feel for them, but we know scientifically sea lion skin is very different from human skin. It has fewer nerve endings because it is used when sea lions haul out on big rocks and get washed into rocks by the surf.”
Sall said ODFW was authorized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to do the branding because research shows it doesn’t have a negative impact on the animals.
Lenton said sea lions shouldn’t be branded and killed for eating protected fish.
“A lot of people are outraged that this is happening,” she said. “These sea lions have as much right to live as anyone else and as much of a right – if not more – to eat the fish. They’re being blamed for a human problem.”