Sea lions are, in many ways, the doggos of the sea. They hunt in packs, for instance, and will do anything for a scooby snack or two. And, just like a pupper, they hit that sweet spot of intelligence: smart enough to stage a glorious food heist, but not so clever that they’ll actually leave the scene of the crime.
Just ask workers at the Rant Point farm, near Tofino in British Columbia. A few weeks ago, a horde of nearly two dozen sea lions managed to break into the industrial salmon farm, getting past the netting and electric fences designed to keep them away from the delicious bounty within, and started gorging themselves silly on fish.
And they’ve been there ever since.
“They are having an all-you-can-eat buffet right now,” Bonny Glambeck, who works with local environmental group Clayoquot Action, told CBC.
Rant Point is owned by Oslo-based aquaculture giant Cermaq, and it can boast up to 500,000 farmed salmon at any time. That makes it kind of perfect for the sea lions, who normally hunt by corralling their prey into one place and picking off individuals one-by-one – it’s “the equivalent of putting a cattle feedlot in the middle of Banff National Park and then being surprised when the bears and wolves show up,” Glambeck told the Toronto Star.
It's likely the sea lions got into the farm thanks to the onset of harvesting season, Cermaq said in a statement shared with the Star. The fish are usually kept separate from the surrounding waters by a series of net fences, but the harvesting process opens up “opportunities for access” which aren’t normally there, the company explained.
But while watching a bunch of sea-doggos living their best anarchist life may be good for the soul, it may yet prove bad for the sea lions themselves. It turns out giant corporations don’t like having their product stolen from right under their noses, and Cermaq is currently trying everything they can to get rid of the pinniped party animals.
“Attempts to deter the sea lions and to remove them from the net pens, with least harm to the animals, have been ongoing in consultation with DFO [Fisheries and Oceans Canada] biologists,” DFO authorities told CTV.
While there’s a “strict requirement” that no sea lions are killed, the department said, the animals have so far “not been deterred by passive deterrent efforts to remove them” – including attempts to scare them away with loud bangs.
“I think the longer they stay, the more habituated they become and all the noises and other things just become part of the background noise,” Andrew Trites, director and professor at UBC’s Marine Mammal Research Unit, told CTV. “[So] it's not going to be effective.”
But the longer the sea lions stay in the farm, the more worried local conservationists get for the cheeky animals’ safety.
“We witnessed [a] sea lion going over one of the fences jumping right into a ‘bird net’, which is suspended net above the pens. He struggled for quite some time to free himself,” Glambeck told The Guardian. “There’s a lot of ropes and hoses around, so we’re increasingly concerned about entanglement.”
“They’re very intelligent animals and it’s so disheartening and heartbreaking to see these animals being potentially harmed by this industry,” she added.
For now, Rant Point is locked in a harvest-off between farm workers and sea lions.
“Several methods are being utilized including the use of containment materials and active harvesting of targeted cages to minimize any potential impacts,” the Cermaq statement says, according to the Star. “The site will be fully harvested by the third week of April.”
Until then, it’s unlikely the sea lions will choose to leave of their own accord, Trites said.
“This is a time of the year when males in particular are bulking up,” he explained. “They're looking for food, more to eat, and these fish farms look to be like we just arrived at the deli.”