Biologist accused of capturing underage sea lions

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Posted by on June 21, 2005 at 19:16:31:

ANCHORAGE A Texas biologist violated federal law by capturing underage Stellar sea lions he was studying in Resurrection Bay and Prince William Sound, federal officials said.

Randall W. Davis, a marine biology professor at Texas A&M University at Galveston, also is accused of capturing the endangered animals without a required permit and using unauthorized sedation drugs.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is seeking a $10,000 fine and has proposed denying Davis research rights for the next five years.

Davis said yesterday the civil charges are unwarranted and he plans to fight them.

"The research community I'm a part of is to help the decline of the Steller sea lion," he said. "We're working to improve the population."

Davis has been studied marine mammals in Alaska for 30 years and sea lions for 15 years. He has published dozens of articles on the species. In 2003 and 2004, he partnered with the Seward-based Alaska SeaLife Center to study the winter habitat and habits of juvenile sea lions, a particularly vulnerable group of the imperiled species.

The population of Steller sea lions plummeted in the late 1970s. In the western part of the state, the mammals are listed as endangered. Those populating the eastern part of Alaska are listed as threatened.

Davis was working in a part of Prince William Sound where the endangered listing applies. He said the animals he captured, tagged with satellite tracking devices and released all fared well in the six to eight months during which he monitored them.

NOAA began its investigation after Davis submitted a required annual report. Questions arose from information in the report, said assistant special agent Kevin Heck.

Davis' team was supposed to capture sea lions at least 1 year old, but he captured 11 animals that were younger than that, according to the violation notice.

Davis said it was possible his team captured animals that were 10 months old. Divers use food to entice the animals underwater and nooses to catch them, and it is impossible to distinguish an age difference of only two months, he said.

NOAA said Davis also used unauthorized sedation drugs. Davis said there was an incident in which his veterinarian anesthesiologist used Valium to sedate one sea lion. Davis said he was not on the research vessel at the time and did not learn about it until a month later.

Valium is often used to calm sea lions and does not harm them, said Don Calkins, manager of the SeaLife Center's Steller sea lion and northern fur seal program who was working with Davis at the time. Calkins said the drug is allowed to be used on sea lions under different permits.

"There is no reason not to allow him to use it," he said.

Davis said the third accusation, that he was conducting research without a permit, was a paperwork snafu.

According to NOAA, Davis' research permit expired in 2003. He said he believes the three-year permit was valid until Dec. 31, 2004. A record of the permit on the agency's Web site has the Dec. 31, 2004 expiration date.

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