Federal law enforcement officers are pressing their investigation into killings of endangered Steller sea lions in the Copper River delta near Cordova, Alaska, offering a $5,000 reward for information that leads to a civil penalty or criminal conviction.

Aerial surveys by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries protected resources division and the Coast Guard found “multiple dead endangered Steller sea lions” over two months, NOAA officials said in a statement issued June 26.

“Like us, these animals were just trying to eat to survive but instead, were killed in their prime,” according to the agency. “Some of these dead Steller sea lions were young and likely learning to feed on their own for the first time. Please help us stop this illegal killing.

“Anyone with information about the illegal killing of endangered Steller sea lions and protected harbor seals in the Copper River Delta should contact the investigating agent directly at (907) 250-5188 or through NOAA’s Enforcement Hotline at (800) 853-1964.”

The annual spring opening of the Copper River salmon fishery is always a flagship event for Alaska’s fishing industry, and NOAA officials are making an explicit appeal to avoid negative publicity over the killings:  

“Protect seals and sea lions and the good name of Alaska's commercial fisheries and don't illegally shoot seals and sea lions.

The western population of Steller sea lions is protected under the Endangered Species Act, which prohibits harassing, harming, or killing listed species. Killing marine mammals is also a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

“Shooting seals and sea lions is against the law unless you are an Alaska Native subsistence harvesting for food or handicraft. The population of these endangered Steller sea lions is in decline,” the agency says.

In the Copper River killings, the dead animals were found untouched with no evidence they were harvested for permitted subsistence use, NOAA Office of Law Enforcement officials said after the initial discovery of dead animals.

"We're asking for help from anyone who may have seen or heard anything related to the killing of these endangered animals," said Nathan Lagerwey, assistant director with NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement, Alaska Division.

Anyone with information should contact the investigating agent directly at (907) 250-5188 or through NOAA’s Enforcement Hotline at (800) 853-1964. To report a dead, injured, or stranded marine mammal, call the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network at (877) 925-7773.

The sea lions were first discovered on May 16, 2023, shortly after the fishery opened, by members of NOAA’s Protected Resources Division. In coordination with the Alaska Wildlife Troopers, it was determined that the sea lions appeared to be shot – with no evidence of any attempt to harvest or salvage them.  

To report dead, injured, or stranded marine mammals, call the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network at (877) 925-7773. When reporting a stranded marine mammal, please include the following information: 

• Date

• Location of stranding (including latitude and longitude)

• Number of animals

• Condition of the animal (alive or dead)

• Species (if known) 

Photos or videos from a safe and legal distance can also provide valuable information to stranding network responders. Only trained and permitted responders should approach or pick up a stranded marine mammal.

A NOAA Fisheries marine mammal specialist examines a dead Steller sea lion pup found on a beach in the Copper River Delta. NOAA photo.

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