British Columbia

Lunging sea lion highlights need for stricter wildlife feeding rules: DFO

Fisheries and Oceans Canada says video of a sea lion dragging a young girl into the waters of Steveston, B.C. reinforces the need for changes to Canada's rules around feeding wildlife.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada hoping for positive end to years-long fight to update regulations

A male California sea lion grabbed a young girl by her dress and pulled her into the water off Steveston's docks on Saturday, May 20. Marine mammal experts say the animal most likely mistook the dress for food. (Michael Fujiwara/CBC)

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) says video of a sea lion dragging a young girl into the waters of Steveston, B.C. reinforces the need for changes to Canada's ill-defined rules around feeding wildlife.

The video — which has been viewed online more than 20 million times — shows pieces of bread being thrown to the animal before it lunged at the child.

"Any time you're habituating a large, powerful marine mammal with large teeth to take food, and habituate them to associate food with people, it's just a bad idea," DFO marine mammal coordinator Paul Cottrell told the CBC's On the Coast host Stephen Quinn.

Marine mammal feeding seen 'coast-wide'

He says Steveston's Fisherman's Wharf is far from the only marina in B.C. where visitors like to feed the wildlife.

"It's something that we have coast-wide in certain marinas where there are individuals... that are feeding seals and sea lions, and they're becoming habituated and can become aggressive, especially if they think you have food," said Cottrell.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada has spearheaded efforts to end the practice in places like Victoria and Oak Bay, largely through education.

While Canada's Marine Mammal Regulations say disturbances to the animals illegal, Cottrell says the language is unclear around what exactly a disturbance is, making enforcement difficult.

"It's not defined very well, it's quite broad," he said.

Updating Marine Mammal Regulations

There are proposed changes to that language awaiting approval in Ottawa that would make it explicitly illegal to touch, feed, or swim with marine mammals.

But Cottrell says there's no guarantee those changes will become law.

"It's been a long go. It's actually over a decade we've been looking at these amendments and trying to get them through," he said.

Meanwhile, to prevent more incidents like the one in Steveston, DFO officials have established an information campaign, and have been putting up signs in marinas where marine mammal feeding is common, warning of the potential danger.

"We're doing our best to educate and put up signs and work with marinas and port authorities across B.C., but with this recent incident, it just underscores how serious an incident can happen," he said.

"We're really hoping those [proposed regulation changes] go through."