By Steve Quinn
JUNEAU, Alaska (Reuters) - Officials are investigating the deaths of federally protected Stellar sea lions, including several that were deliberately killed, near an Alaska fishing community, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said on Friday.
Two weeks ago, NOAA officials received word from Alaska's Department of Fish and Game of 15 dead sea lions found along the coast about 45 miles (72 km) southeast of Cordova, east of Anchorage.
As many as five of these sea lions' deaths were caused by humans, said NOAA spokeswoman Julie Speegle, who declined to release specific details on the wounds. Speegle said all of the sea lions were adults.
Of the 15 animals, biologists were able to examine 12, while three others were too badly decomposed. Ten were males and two were females who were not believed to have been pregnant because females usually give birth to pups in the earlier spring months, Speegle said.
Now biologists and enforcement officials are awaiting lab results from various necropsies, Speegle said.
Speegle said nothing from the animals was harvested nor was there any fishing gear nearby.
Killing marine mammals is a federal offense under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. There are limited exceptions, such as subsistence hunting for indigenous people.
Another NOAA spokeswoman, Kate Brogan, said penalties for civil and criminal convictions can reach $100,000 and one year in jail, per the Marine Mammal Act.
These sea lions come from a particular population that is also protected under the Endangered Species Act, which prohibits anyone from harassing, harming or killing the mammals.
Adult males can be as long as 11 feet (3.35 meters) and weigh up to 2,500 pounds (1,134 kg). Females are significantly smaller ranging from seven to nine feet (2.1 to 2.7 meters) and weighing up to 700 pounds (317.5 kg).
They are coastal predators, eating primarily at night and moving on to land for rest and molting.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Sandra Maler)