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Gunshots and More!

Negative Human Related Injuries & Interactions are a Federal Offense

Whirlybird was shot in the face and is permanently blind. Here, he sleeps at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, CA.
© The Marine Mammal Center

Why are so many California sea lions intentionally hurt - more than other marine mammals?
“The answer is found in the numbers, individual species’ behaviors, and in what marine scientists directly observe,” said Dr. Bill Van Bonn, director of veterinary science at The Marine Mammal Center. “There are approximately 250,000 California sea lions found along the west coast of California. This far outnumbers all other pinnipeds and marine mammals, combined, including elephant seals, harbor seals, Northern fur seals, and sea otters.”“Another reason sea lions appear to be the more common target of ‘intentional, negative human interaction,’ is that sea lions will more often try to come ashore when gravely injured, while other marine mammal species will die or suffer at sea,” added Dr. Van Bonn.

Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, amended 1994

This adult male California sea lion named Sgt. Nevis, was rescued by The Marine Mammal Center in 2009. He had been shot in the head and the bullet severely damaged his nasal passage.
© Sue Pemberton, The Marine Mammal Center



The U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) protects all marine mammals, including cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), pinnipeds (seals and sea lions), sirenians (manatees and dugongs), sea otters, and polar bears within the waters of the United States. The Act makes it illegal to "take" marine mammals without a permit. This means people may not harass, feed, hunt, capture, collect, or kill any marine mammal or part of a marine mammal. The Act also formalized the marine mammal health and stranding response program to improve the response of stranding and unusual mortality events. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website gives the complete text of the Act.

NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries Service, or NMFS), is under the U.S. Department of Commerce, and charged with the responsibility of protecting marine mammals and endangered marine life. NOAA’s Office of Protected Resources works to conserve, protect, and recover species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the  Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) in conjunction with Regional Offices, Science Centers, and various partners. (

Silent Knight makes the ninth marine mammal the Center rescued in 2010 with gunshot wounds.

Silent Knight rests comfortably in his pool at The Marine Mammal Center. The tissue around his right eye that he lost as a result of a gunshot is beginning to heal.
© Dina Warren, The Marine Mammal Center



In 2009, 19 sea lions were rescued suffering from gunshots. Sadly, those are only the seals and sea lions the Center knows about and it is most likely that countless others that don't strand on a beach just die at sea.

“Unfortunately, our latest gunshot wounded patient, Silent Knight, is only the latest in a long line of marine mammal gunshot patients rescued by The Marine Mammal Center,” said Dr. Jeff Boehm, executive director at The Marine Mammal Center. “In 1992 we began keeping records on human interactions with marine mammals and since then, volunteers and staff have rescued nearly 500 marine mammals (primarily sea lions) that had been shot. We even came to the rescue of a poor sea lion that had been shot in the neck with an arrow from a crossbow."

Another gunshot victim that was treated at the Center was Sgt. Nevis was shot in the Sacramento River.

How Does The Marine Mammal Center Fit Into Research on Gunshot Violence?

Marine Science Research plays a key role at The Marine Mammal Center. The Center regularly conducts and contributes to a long list of cutting-edge research projects that are published peer-reviewed journals. You can read just a few of the many groundbreaking studies the Center has helped publish regarding Negative Human Interaction (gunshots, entanglements, harassment and boat strikes) as well as papers about toxic algae poisoning, cancer and pathogens. Many scientific publications can be found in the Science section of our website:

Human Interaction Papers: 

1999 - Goldstein, T., Johnson, S.P., Phillips, A.V., Hanni, K., Fauquier, D.A., and Gulland, F.M.D. 1999. Human-related injuries observed in live stranded pinnipeds along the central California coast 1986-1998. Aquatic Mammals 25(1): 43-51. 

2009 - Dau, B.K., Gilardi, K.V.K., Gulland, F.M., Higgins, A., Holcomb, J.B., St.Leger, J. and Ziccardi, M.H. 2009. Fishing gear-related injury in California marine wildlife. Journal of Wildlife Diseases. 45(2): 355-362.

2010 - Jacobsen, J.K., Massey, L., and Gulland, F. 2010. Fatal ingestion of floating marine debris by two sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus). Marine Pollution Bulletin 60:765-767.


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