About 20 dead sea lions — most with gunshot wounds — have been found in northern Oregon and southern Washington in just two months, a marine mammal researcher says.

Dalin D'Alessandro tells The Oregonian that the shooting surge since the beginning of April is claiming both California and Steller sea lions. She's a Portland State University research assistant with the Northern Oregon-Southern Washington Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

The dead creatures have been found near the mouth of the Columbia River and a few miles to the north and south.

D'Alessandro thinks the killing is due to fishermen frustrated over competition for their catch. While it's typical to see a slight increase in dead sea lions around the opening of salmon season, recent numbers are about four times the norm for the same time period, she said.

Last month, a federal judge rejected a request to halt the killing of California sea lions that eat protected salmon at Oregon's Bonneville Dam. That program allows Idaho, Oregon and Washington authorities to kill targeted sea lions.

California sea lions are federally protected as marine mammals, but not as endangered or threatened species. The area's Steller sea lions are currently federally protected as a threatened species.

"It is brazen that these people will shoot these animals that are federally protected," said Jim Rice, Oregon Coast coordinator for the Marine Mammal Stranding Network. "It's really alarming."

Rice said he suspects the controversy over the sea lions at the Bonneville Dam may be contributing to the shootings.

"The fact that it is something the state authorities are doing may give people the idea that is OK for them to shoot them, too," said Rice. "It is not OK."

At the dam, authorities keep close track of which sea lions are eating a lot of salmon, and target the worst offenders for capture and lethal injection.


Information from: The Oregonian, http://www.oregonlive.com