The incident aboard the F/V Cape St. Elias was reported Feb. 28 in an article in “In the Loop,” an online publication of Alaska’s Aleutians East Borough, written by AEB communications director Laura Tanis.
Michael “Mack” McNeil, who is recuperating at home in Deer Park, Washington, never saw it coming. “It was the worst pain I’ve ever felt,” he said.
Ben Ley, the vessel’s owner and skipper, said the attack occurred while the crew was taking off a pollock net and putting on a cod net, and that there were no fish on board. McNeil was running hydraulics and walked around to clear the backlash when the sea lion came up all the way out of the water, jumped up over the stern ramp and onto the deck.
McNeil said the sea lion grabbed him before it even hit the deck. Other crew rushed to grab McNeil before he got closer to the stern ramp. The sea lion took a couple hops back toward the water, but then let go, McNeil said. But the sea lion had bit through his oilskins, sweatpants and long underwear, down to the bone.
The crew called for help and McNeil was transported to the local clinic, then transported to Anchorage, where an orthopedic surgeon operated on his leg later that evening. “The muscles in my calf were partially severed, so the surgeon reattached them,” McNeil said.
McNeil said he is unable to walk right now and he expects it will take at least 12 weeks for his calf muscles to heal, so he can begin physical therapy.
He still is puzzled about the unprovoked attack, because the net was clean and there were no fish on board.
“I’m a big guy,” he said. “I’m 6’3” tall. I was wearing bright orange oilskins. There’s no way the sea lion could have mistaken me for a piece of fish.”
NOAA’s office of law enforcement in Kodiak is also puzzled by the incident, but NOAA officials did note cases where fishermen have dumped fish parts near docks or in harbors, and said that as a result some sea lions may view fishing boats as a food source.
Feeding changes the natural behaviors of sea lions, decreasing their willingness to find their own food, and increasing the chances they will steal fish from fishermen. Sea lions may then lose their natural wariness of humans and associate people with food, resulting in dangerous and unpredictable behavior toward people, NOAA officials said.
The sea lions are, however, federally protected under the Marine Mammals Act, so NOAA’s advice to the public is to be aware that they are aggressive animals and need to be left alone.