California Man Charged in Shooting Death of Elephant Seal

A female elephant seal equipped with two data-logging tags. (Photo by Martín Ignacio Brogger)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Federal prosecutors filed criminal charges Tuesday against a California man who fatally shot a northern elephant seal on a beach on the Central Coast.

Northern elephant seals are found along North America’s Pacific coast, with a range that stretches as far north as Alaska and as far south as Mexico. Large gatherings of the seals — including adult males that can weigh up to 4,400 pounds and reach 19 feet in length — are typically found along the Pacific coast in areas called rookeries. 

Rookeries are typically populated year-round though numbers can vary based on breeding and molting cycles for the seals, which are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

In September 2019, authorities discovered the corpse of a northern elephant seal on a beach near San Simeon. The animal had been shot in the head. The beach — located off California Highway 1 — is close to an observation deck where the public can view elephant seals. 

After an investigation by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, prosecutors charged Jordan Gerbich, 30, with fatally shooting the mammal on September 28, 2019.

U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California Nicola T. Hanna did not immediately respond to a question about the gun used in the shooting, though Hanna’s office confirmed Gerbich is not in federal custody.

According to the San Luis Obispo Tribune, the seal was a female and was found with “its tail fins cut off and chest cavity cut open.”

Prosecutors charged the Santa Maria resident with one count of taking a marine mammal, a misdemeanor. If convicted, Gerbich faces a statutory maximum sentence of one year in federal prison. 

Northern elephant seals — scientific name Mirounga angustirostris — typically spend nine months of each year in the ocean, dining mainly on squid and fish. When the elephant seals arrive at their breeding beaches in Mexico and California, adult males can be seen fighting each other and producing loud nasal calls to establish dominance.

The main threats faced by the mammals include becoming entangled in fishing gear and being struck by ocean vessels. 

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