(CN) — A former California resident pleaded guilty Monday to a federal criminal charge in the fatal shooting of a northern elephant seal on a Central Coast beach.
In 2019, authorities discovered the corpse of a northern elephant seal on a beach near San Simeon, California. The animal had been shot in the head.
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 Monday, appearing via videoconference in the Central District of California, Gerbich pleaded guilty to a single count of taking a marine mammal, a misdemeanor.
The former Santa Maria, California, resident told prosecutors that on the evening of Sept. 28, 2019, he drove to an elephant seal observation area adjacent to the Piedras Blancas Marine Reserve and Monterey Bay National Marine sanctuary near San Simeon.
Gerbich, now a resident of Utah, then used a .45-caliber pistol he had purchased to shoot and kill the female elephant seal, according to a plea agreement.
U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer scheduled sentencing for April 12, 2021. Gerbich faces a statutory maximum sentence of one year in federal prison.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Heather C. Gorman of the Environmental and Community Safety Crimes Section.
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.
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.