The seal was shot through the head near the San Juan Islands during a fishing derby. She and her unborn seal pup are lucky to be alive.
A pregnant seal, now without its left eye after being shot with a pellet gun, is heading home to the San Juan Islands Sunday after successful surgery and nearly a month of recovery away from the sea.
A fisherman shot the seal through the head near the Sucia Islands late last month, and the creature only endured the initial trauma of the ordeal through luck and quick emergency care.
The feisty, one-eyed seal, who goes by “19-0120” among staff caring for her at the PAWS Wildlife Center, is expected to survive her reintroduction to the wild.
Her plight highlights rising tensions between fishermen and federally protected pinnipeds — seals and sea lions — in the Pacific Northwest, as both compete for their catch of fish.
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The harbor seal was shot during a fishing derby, according to Jennifer Olson, the Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator for San Juan County.
Deputies with the San Juan County Sheriff’s office, along with a border patrol agent, were the first to reach the seal the afternoon of the shooting on Jan. 26.
“We received a call that somebody was out shooting a seal with a pellet gun,” said Zac Reimer, the office’s undersheriff. “Another person, who was also fishing, observed this happening right in front of them and gave us a call right away.”
Reimer said the person who reported the shooting was close enough to capture video of the events.
When deputies arrived, the suspect’s boat was still there and the seal was “bobbing around, not acting like a healthy harbor seal,” Reimer said. “It just appeared stunned.”
The animal was so listless that deputies were able to get a rope around the creature and haul it onto their 26-foot patrol boat.
No one was arrested at the scene, but deputies were able to talk to witnesses, take photographs and collect evidence, Reimer said. A 40-year-old man is suspected in the shooting, he said. The man’s boat had remained there with several other people onboard.
“Since we were already on marine patrol, we were able to just go right up to the boats and talk to everybody,” Reimer said.
The evidence is in the hands of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s law-enforcement branch, which is investigating and could pursue federal charges. Violations of the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act can result in fines of up to $28,520 along with up to one year of imprisonment.
A rare case of survival
Washington state once financed a bounty hunting program that encouraged people to kill harbor seals in an effort to bolster fishermen’s catch, according to the Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife.
With the program’s end in 1960 and the passage of the federal protection act 12 years later, the population of harbor seals began to multiply many times over.
But the recovery of pinnipeds has also spurred an increase in salmon consumption by the creatures, according to a 2017 paper published in Scientific Reports. In 1975, harbor seals ate an estimated 3.5 million chinook salmon. In 2015, that figure rose to 27.4 million chinook, most of them juveniles.
That leaves fewer fish for anglers and endangered southern resident orcas. Conflict with people is on the rise.
“There’s certainly frustration out there, at the slow recovery of salmon, and these animals are using those resources that we also rely on,” said Michael Milstein, a NOAA spokesperson.
Researchers examined pinniped stranding data in the Pacific Northwest from 1991 to 2016 in a recent Aquatic Mammals Journal article.
Strandings — when a pinniped comes ashore dead or is alive and unable to return to the water without help — began to rise in the early 2000s, a trend driven, in part, by a rise in the animals being shot, according to the data.
In 25 years of study, 896 harbor seals were found to have been stranded after interacting with people. More than 21 percent of those seals were shot.
Meanwhile, dead sea lions, with bullet holes, have been washing up across Puget Sound shores.
The Whale Museum, where Olson works as a data specialist, tracks marine-mammal strandings in San Juan County.
Since 1980, the museum has counted 39 confirmed cases in which pinnipeds were shot. Most of the cases are identified in necropsies.
“To have a live seal survive the gunshot wound where there’s time to help them, that’s what makes this case rare,” Olson said.
‘Cross our fingers and hope’
Soon after the shooting, the deputies brought the struggling seal to Olson, who loaded the animal into a crate and drove her to the Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehabilitation Center on San Juan Island.
“She was moving. I could tell she was alive,” Olson said. But after “giving her a small tap on her back, there was absolutely no response.”
Olson could see entry and exit wounds. Blood and pus were leaking out of the creature’s head, she said. She worried the seal could have suffered brain damage.
Once the seal arrived at Wolf Hollow, Penny Harner, a staff rehabilitator began to treat the “lethargic” animal.
“Basically, all we could do the first night was get some fluids in her, get some medications on board and cross our fingers and hope for the night,” Harner said.
But the next morning, when she flipped the lights, the 128-pound creature stirred and began to look around with her good eye.
When Harner entered the room to treat the seal, “she did what a typical seal would, which was lunge.”
Wolf Hollow staff typically work with injured or orphaned seal pups, but not strong, muscular adults. During treatments, it took four staffers, clad in protective gear, to hold the animal down for medication.
“She gave me a ride around the room at times,” said Harner, who was in charge of using her knees to control the seal’s flippers.
When a veterinarian visited the rehabilitation center, it was clear that the pellet wound, just above the seal’s bugged-out and bloodshot left eye, would require surgery.
Nearly a week after she was shot, the seal was taken in an animal ambulance to the PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynnwood, which treats hundreds of species of injured wild animals.
As snow fell on Seattle on Feb. 4, veterinarians, surgeons and other helpers crowded to do surgery in a small room that looks like a shabby doctor’s office. Earlier, an X-ray showed tiny metal fragments of the pellet lodged inside her head, and also a surprise — the seal was pregnant. The scan had revealed the curvature of a tiny spine, rib cage and skull growing inside.
While the seal remained under anesthetic, two surgeons began their work, as the others monitored the animal’s blood pressure, breathing and heartbeat.
The surgeons carved out the damaged tissue, severed the seal’s optic nerve and removed her eye. Then, they scored the seal’s eyelids and sutured them to one another so the skin would heal together.
“It’s a bloody surgery,” said wildlife veterinarian Nicki Rosenhagen, but the seal fared well.
PAWS staffers placed the seal’s eyeball, and some extra tissue, in a plastic gelato container. “We do a lot of educational talks,” Rosenhagen explained.
The pregnant seal has had a smooth recovery, Rosenhagen said. The seal arrived to PAWS plump, strong and healthy, aside from the gunshot wound. The surgical site has been healing well and there’s no evidence of infection. She’s been swimming. And her behavior has been “appropriately aggressive” — normal for a seal and a good indication that no brain damage occurred.
‘Super lucky’ and headed home
On Sunday morning, as long as a blood test comes back clean, PAWS naturalist Jeff Brown will help load the pregnant seal into a giant dog kennel, secure her in the bed of a pickup truck and haul her home.
He’s scouted two locations for a beach release, one in the Sucia Islands and another on San Juan Island with easier access, in case a storm stirs.
By the afternoon, a crew will unload the kennel and release the seal back to her home.
The veterinarians expect the seal to adapt to hunting with one eye and give her good prospects to survive. The baby should also be fine, Rosenhagen said. A radiologist who examined the X-ray said she saw no evidence of fetal death, despite the mother’s ordeal.
“She got super lucky,” Rosenhagen said, “if getting shot in the head is lucky.”