Sea lion bites fisherman at Sand Point dock

F/V Cape St. Elias had no fish on board at the time

A crewman aboard a fishing vessel tied up at the Peter Pan Seafoods dock at Sand Point was bitten by a sea lion who jumped aboard the commercial fishing vessel, causing severe injury, the Aleutians East Borough said in a report published Feb. 28.

The attack on Michael “Mack” McNeil, of Deer Park, WA, occurred on Jan. 23, on board the F/V Cape St. Elias, the borough reported in an article written by Laura Tanis, borough communications director and editor of “In The Loop,” the borough’s online newsletter.

Owner/skipper Ben Ley said the attack was unprovoked.

“We were taking off a pollock net and putting on our cod net at the time,” Ley said. “There were zero fish on board. That’s what’s kind of eerie about this.”

McNeil was standing with his back to the stern ramp as the crew moved a net forward off the reel and stacked it to put away.  None of them saw the sea lion swimming around nearby.

“This was completely out of the blue,” McNeil said. “I was running hydraulics, and I walked around to clear the backlash. The sea lion came up all the way out of the water, jumped up over the stern ramp and up onto the deck, several feet up.”
The sea lion grabbed him before it even hit the deck, McNeil said.  Other crew members grabbed McNeil before he got any closer to the stern ramp.

The sea lion took a couple of hops back toward the water, but then let go, leaving McNeil in extreme pain, where the sea lion had bit down to the bone.

The crew called for help and McNeil was transported to the clinic at Sand Point, where the wound was cleaned and stitched up until he could get to an Anchorage hospital. Later that evening, an orthopedic surgeon in Anchorage operated on the injured leg. The surgeon had to reattach the partially severed muscle.

Now at home in Washington state, McNeil is recovering but unable to walk at this time. He has to keep his leg elevated at all times to prevent swelling.

He told the editor of “In The Loop” that he expected it to take at least 12 weeks for his calf muscles to heal, and then he will begin physical therapy.

Both McNeil and Ley remain puzzled by the attack, which happened with no fish on board and McNeil, who stands 6’3” wearing bright orange oilskins. “There’s no way the sea lion could have mistaken me for a piece of fish,” he said.

NOAA’s office of law enforcement in Kodiak is also unclear as to why the sea lion attacked McNeil.

Tom Gelatt, who leads the Alaska Ecosystem Program that does research on Steller sea lions and northern fur seals for NOAA, observed that “sea lions have been around for a long time, and they know the sound of the gear.

“If there’s food around – not saying they’re being fed, but if there’s fish or fish byproduct going into the water or nets with fish, sea lions can become less frightened of people over time.”

There have been incidents in the past where fishermen have dumped fish parts near docks or in harbors. As a result, some sea lions may view fishing bots as a food source, he said.

In other cases, there have been instances where tourists or residents have fed sea lions, resulting in hefty fines, he said. NOAA has conducted outreach to the general public to let everyone know that feeding sea lions is illegal.

According to NOAA, feeding changes the natural behaviors of sea lions, decreasing their willingness to find their own food, and increasing the changes they will steal fish from fishermen. As a result, NOAA officials said, sea lions may lose their natural wariness of humans and associate people with food, and his often results in dangerous and unpredictable behavior towards people, In The Loop noted.