SEATTLE-- "It does seem we've seen quite the uptick in the number of dead animals washing up," said Casey Mclean with marine mammal non-profit SR-3.
She's policing a grim scene at Seacrest Marine Park in West Seattle.
Just a few hundred feet from where tourists and commuters go to and from the Seattle Water Taxi, there's a roughly 800 pound body bobbing in the shallow water, tethered to a log with yellow rope so it wont float away at high tide.
"We're always concerned about human interaction cases," Mclean said.
She's executive director of SR-3 which stands for Sealife Response Rehab Research. Mclean is doing the necropsies on the two sea lions that showed up just this week on Seattle beaches.
"These guys are top predators in our environment and so if they're showing up sick or with certain diseases, injuries-- we want to know about what those are so we can mitigate that problem," she said.
Sea lions often enter Puget Sound waters this time of year to forage for food.
What is unusual is for those sea lions to end up dead. And for two of the five dead so far this fall, we do know the death is human-caused.
"There have been two gunshot cases in the region so far," says Mclean. "We don't know who is doing this, we don't really know what the motivation is behind it."
NOAA Fisheries investigators say the fatal shootings happened on October 5th and November 8th. West Seattleites who may have seen or heard something out of the ordinary on those dates, or going forward, are asked to call their law enforcement hotline 1-800-853-1964.
Mclean said in the past, encounters of humans killing sea lions have usually involved competition over food or resources. But, with sea lions grabbing headlines in recent months for being big competitors for chinook salmon-- something our Southern Resident Killer Whale population needs to survive-- the circle of suspects could even widen to those vigilantes looking to take out sea lions to benefit our Puget Sound orcas.
But, Mclean says while all options are open-- it's all complete speculation at this early point in the investigations.
"It'd be total speculation," Mclean said. "We have seen people who are upset over food competition for fish or upset that an animal might be in their nets or damaging their equipment."
The necropsies Mclean is starting Thursday afternoon wont be fully complete until early next week.
Even if there's a clear sign of a bullet wound, x-rays are often completed to try and find bullet fragments inside the body-- which could lend clues to who fired them.
If the wounds are not gunshots, they will take copious tissue samples to check to see what other factors could be at work.
"We're looking for any diseases," Mclean said. "We're looking for parasites, we're looking for any sort of injuries that may have lead to death."
If you see a distressed or injured marine mammal (porpoises, seals, sea lions, sea otters, whales)-- it's important to stay at least 100 meters away as required by law. It's also important to call the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network at 1-866-767-6114.