Jordan: Every so often on this show, we come across a story that’s so strange, that even though it might not be the day’s biggest story, we have to take a second look. And today’s story begins with sea lions. Dead sea lions, specifically. Their bodies are found from time to time on beaches in British Columbia. That’s not really that strange. Lots of dead things wash up on the beach.
News Clip: Sea lions are enormous and loud. Some would even say magnificent, but clearly not all. They are headless sea lions that have washed up on the shore and the carcasses are rotting on the shores and people are upset about it. And rightly so.
Jordan: Recently, though, these corpses have been found missing their heads. And yes, that’s the strange part, but not the strangest part. What or who took these heads before or after the sea lions died? Why? What happened to them heads after they were severed? And what is this whole strange saga tell us about the delicate balance of predator and prey and humans and fisheries on our West coast? Are these random and scattered incidents? Or are they indicative of a larger problem, either in the ocean or in the public policy that governs it? And finally, why, if it’s illegal for me to kill a sea lion and illegal for me to sell it skull or any other part of it, is it still absolutely legal for me to find a dead sea lion on the beach and chop off its head? Okay, that’s the strangest part. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Wanyee Li is a reporter at the Vancouver Bureau with the Toronto Star. Hi Wanyee.
Wanyee: Hi Jordan.
Jordan: Why don’t you start just by telling me how the heck you ended up on this story? It’s a fascinating one.
Wanyee: Yeah, it is. It’s unusual to say the least, but, I guess in the past few weeks we’ve seen local news reports about sea lions washing up on Vancouver Island, actually. And the unusual thing is that some of them have been missing their heads. And I think that kind of got people talking about why that might be and how these sea lions kind of lost their heads, I guess.
Jordan: And we’ll get into the headless stuff very shortly, but just in general, why does so many dead sea lions end up on the beaches out there normally? Is that just what happens after they die? How do they get there?
Wanyee: Yeah, I mean, so. There are about 45,000 sea lions in BC waters. So there are quite a few of them. And when they die, many of them, they get bloated. And so they do float to the top of the water and some of them kind of end up on the beaches, just on BC’s shore. So it’s not an uncommon thing to see dead sea lions. But as you mentioned, the unusual thing is that some of them were missing their heads, so.
Jordan: When we say some of them, how often has this been happening? Do we have any idea, like, how many have been found?
Wanyee: Yeah, so I asked the department of fisheries and oceans that, and they said that they’ve only received six reports of headless sea lions, which isn’t, I mean, that’s not a lot compared to, you know, the thousands of sea lions out there of course, but it is something that kind of makes the news and people, there are many people that are concerned about the welfare of the animals, of course.
Jordan: Have you seen evidence of this? Like, and I know this is a little bit grizzly, but you know, pictures, videos, what’s happening?
Wanyee: The photos, and there’s actually one instance of footage, but the photos that we’ve seen have been mostly posted on social media or there are, you know, residents nearby who send them to news outlets and kind of want to get the word out that this is happening. So I have seen pictures. They are quite graphic. I mean, you can see that the body of the sea lion is just kind of there and the cuts where the head would be, it’s quite a clean cut. I mean, I’m not, I guess I’m not an expert. I’m not a veterinarian. But it does look human caused.
Jordan: Well, and what about the video? Is there anybody in the video?
Wanyee: So, yeah, there was one instance last week, actually, it was a CTV story, and a resident saw a man take– kinda make like a makeshift raft to paddle over to where there was a dead sea lion. And then he spent the next few hours cutting off the head of that sea lion and then paddling back.
Jordan: A few hours?
Jordan: That’s how long it takes, I guess.
Wanyee: I mean, yeah, sea lions, especially, the male ones can get quite, quite big, so I–
Wanyee: I’m not sure. I don’t have, you know, we don’t have experience in this, but–
Jordan: That’s probably good.
Wanyee: Yeah, it did take a few hours apparently. Yes.
Jordan: Just to be clear, cause I’m trying to understand this before we get into the kind of story behind it, there’s no suspicion that people are killing sea lions. These are sea lions who did naturally and end up on the beaches.
Wanyee: Yeah, so I guess that’s kind of, that’s part of the mystery actually. There have been some sea lions that have been found with gunshot wounds. And there is a conflict between fishers and sea lions and seals, because sea lions, they do eat fish and they’re kind of competing with the fishers for that resource. So there is some animosity there. And there are sea lions that are killed by humans. But in this case, I think most of the experts that I talk to are kind of– believe that the sea lions were already dead, and then someone comes along and sees it and thinks, this is an opportunity for me to take the head.
Jordan: Okay. So this is my question, an opportunity for what? Who wants these and why?
Wanyee: Yeah. Good question. So that’s the thing that I was thinking about actually, when I started looking into this. You know, kind of what happens to the heads? Why would somebody want to take them? And it turns out that there is quite a demand for sea lion skulls. The commercial sale of a sea lion products is still illegal right now. So this would be an underground market. I spoke to one person who has actually been advocating for a commercial sale of sea lion products. And he says that right now, you know, in the underground market, you can find sea lion skulls going for as much as $4,000.
Jordan: Why are they worth so much? And who wants them?
Wanyee: There are, you know, taxidermy enthusiasts who want to collect as many animals as they can. And, you know, sea lions are a top predator, and they can get quite big. So I guess to some people having kind of a trophy, so to speak, is worthwhile.
Jordan: So it’s illegal to commercially sell these heads. Are sea lions endangered and protected, or, you know, are there lots of them? Like, why is that illegal?
Wanyee: Right. Well, they’re not endangered, but they are listed as special concern. So the government is keeping an eye on that population. But the sea lions have recovered since the 1970s, back when they were hunted.
Jordan: But you’re still not allowed to hunt them, except some people are lobbying for that. So what’s the case behind that?
Wanyee: Yeah, exactly. Well, so I guess just a caveat, some first nations are allowed to hunt sea lions for cultural reasons and some ceremonial reasons. But yes, you’re right. For the most part, the commercial haunts of sea lions is not allowed. There is a group of people, mostly fishers, who believed that sea lions need to be culled and that people can make a living out of selling sea lion products. These fishers, they believe that sea lions are hurting the fisheries. They say that there are just too many. And so their argument is that, you know, it’s time to begin the hunt once again, basically.
Jordan: What kind of products do advocates say can be made from sea lions?
Wanyee: Yeah, I mean, so there are some things that First Nations already use sea lions for. You know, the pelt can be used for clothing. It can also be used for drums. Sea lion whiskers are used in some Indigenous regalia for ceremonies. You could use seal meat or sea lion meat for pet food, or maybe in the future, even humans could consume it. The blubber of sea lions, there’s, Omega-3 fatty acids in there, which, maybe the pharmaceutical industry might be interested in that. So yeah, according to advocates, there are lots of possibilities out there.
Jordan: Do we have any idea of the impact of that you mentioned that they’re having on fisheries? Like, has anybody looked at that to see if the claims are true?
Wanyee: Yeah. There are biologists that have looked at that. I think anything food web related is always complex because, you know, it’s not– one animal doesn’t just eat one type of prey, right? So the effects can be quite complicated to figure out. Sea lions do eat salmon. But they also eat other fish like herring and hake. And hake actually eat juvenile salmon. So if you take away the sea lines, then for instance, there could be a population boom of hake, which would be bad news for salmon, right? So if you’re a salmon fisher, I don’t think it’s that clear which animal is affecting what.
Jordan: Yeah. Do we know if, besides the lobbying and the campaigning, there is any chance of any of this changing? Like, are we close to opening up commercial hunting? Is this sitting before anybody or is this just, you know, a bunch of people who work in the fisheries who would like it?
Wanyee: Yeah. DFO has said that they have no plans to open a commercial hunt. Much to the frustration of these fishers that I’ve been talking to. And even if they were starting to consider it, it would still take, you know, one or two years to kind of get through all the paperwork that it would take. So, no, we’re not close to seeing a sea lion hunt in BC.
Jordan: My question is if it is illegal to kill sea lions, and it’s illegal to sell their products– I understand both of those– if a sea lion happens to wash up on the beach and I am there with a saw, I guess, is it illegal just for me to take the head?
Wanyee: No, my understanding is that it’s not illegal for you to take the head of a sea lion if it’s already dead and if you do not plan to sell it.
Jordan: So I could just take it home and do nothing with it, as long as I don’t make any money off it.
Jordan: Are there investigations going on into why this is happening? Or is this just kind of a phenomenon that’s popped up a few times?
Wanyee: DFO says that they’re keeping an eye on it and that they would investigate if it seemed like someone was taking off the heads to hide evidence. So I think what they mean by that is that if someone had shot a sea lion in the head and they took off the head in order to kind of hide the fact that the sea lion died from unnatural causes, then that would be a crime. And DFO would investigate and try to press charges. But you know, most people that I’ve talked to have said that it doesn’t look like that’s the case here. But I mean, they’re keeping an eye out apparently, so.
Jordan: You mentioned the Black Market earlier. What is the black market for a sea lion head? Where would I sell that if I happened to have one? Like on Kijiji?
Wanyee: Good question. When I was reporting the story, I did kind of do a Google search and nothing came up, which I guess didn’t really surprise me because, I mean, it is illegal. I would be surprised if you could find this on, you know, Facebook Market or something like that. So, I guess my answer is I’m not sure where you would find this. But the fisher that I spoke to said that he has gotten a lot of personal emails from folks who are wanting to buy a sea lion head because they’ve seen him in the media. They’ve seen him talking about it. So it seems like demand is out there.
Jordan: So wait, this is the guy from a fishery saying that we should be able to hunt sea lions and he goes on the news and talks about this because these lions are showing up and then people email him and ask him if he knows where they can get a head?
Wanyee: Yeah, exactly. And he did tell me that he doesn’t sell sea lion products. But he said that he would be like, what did he say? He said he’d be first in line to sell sea lions if it became legal, so.
Jordan: What will you end up taking away from this story that you didn’t know going into it? And I mean, you know, it’s not the biggest story in the world, but I wanted to talk to you about it because it’s just so unusual.
Wanyee: It is strange. You know, I’ve written about called the idea of culling animals before, and that’s kind of related to this because there are people who think that we should be culling sea lines. And there’s just always this– kind of the ethics behind it are very– are more complicated than you would think, even though, you know, I mean, I love animals and many people do, but there are also people who need to make a living out there and, you know, kind of this idea of which animals deserve protection and which ones should we be well to hunt? And that whole discussion is very interesting. And this is kind of– it’s just the tip of the iceberg. I mean, you know, the headlines say, you know, Headless Sea Lions Spotted in Vancouver Island, but there’s a whole kind of discussion that has been going on for decades and this is kind of just a little glimpse into it, I think.
Jordan: Thanks for helping walk us through this, Wanyee.
Wanyee: Thanks for having me, Jordan.
Jordan: Wanyee Li in the Vancouver Bureau for the Toronto Star. That was The Big Story. If you want more, we’re at thebigstorypodcast.ca. We are on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. We are in your favourite podcast player. Doesn’t matter which one, we’re in there. I promise. You can find us and all the other shows on Frequency at frequencypodcastnetwork.com. And you can email us anytime you want, email@example.com. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings.
Back to top of page