Ottawa warns boaters not to disturb sea lions hauled out at Cowichan Bay

Educational signs may be posted

The fall arrival of Steller and California sea lions to Cowichan Bay to feed on salmon is a world-class wildlife spectacle, allowing people a rare up-close look at both species. 


Problem is, some boaters and paddlers can’t resist getting too close, forcing the sea lions to scatter. What these boaters may not realize is that they are breaking a federal law that prohibits anyone from disturbing a marine mammal.


“Every salmon season the Department faces issues with people disturbing the sea lions in this area,” Fisheries and Oceans Canada said in an email to


"Intentionally approaching a sea lion to a distance that would cause animals to move from their haul-out and into the water would result in a disturbance violation under subsection 7(1) of the Marine Mammal Regulations. The Department is currently considering posting signage at this location reminding boaters of the regulations.”


Anyone who witnesses a violation is urged to call the Observe, Record and Report line at 1-800-465-4336 or email details to


Boaters simply entering or departing the Cowichan Bay waterfront needn’t worry. The warning is levelled at those who deliberately motor very closely past the sea lions.


The dock on which the sea lions haul out is federal property and serves as a breakwater for other moored boats, says Mark Mercer, harbour manager of the Cowichan Bay Fishermen’s Wharf Association, which collects moorage fees to manage the site.


A few boats tie up to the breakwater, including a small sailboat that sank this past fall after some of the sea lions climbed aboard. “The guy didn’t come to pick it up when he was supposed to,” says Mercer. “I told him the sea lions are showing up.…”


Mercer says he receives public complaints about harassment of the sea lions, but says the population has grown and “I often have 300 of them on the breakwater.”


Seals and sea lions are an important food source for threatened transient killer whales.


Mercer would like to see boaters coming and going to the waterfront adhere to a no-wake rule, for the benefit of the sea lions and other moored vessels. 


“There is no speed limit. They come in whatever (speed) they want. They come screaming in and don’t slow down until they’re past the breakwater.”


Mercer has also observed drones being flown low overhead, harassing the sea lions. “Half the time I don’t know where they’re coming from.”


Learn more about sea lions at


(Photos: Steller and California sea lions on breakwater; Mark Mercer, Cowichan Bay Fishermen’s Wharf Association.)


— Larry Pynn Jan. 23, 2021