A former Santa Maria Valley man has pleaded guilty to a federal misdemeanor charge for fatally shooting a northern elephant seal on a beach in San Luis Obispo County.
The guilty plea via a video conference hearing Monday came four months after Jordan Gerbich, 30, who now lives in Utah, was charged with one count of taking a marine mammal, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
In September 2019, the corpse of a northern elephant seal was found on a beach near San Simeon, close to a popular viewing area along Highway 1 where visitors can observe elephant seals, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said Tuesday in press release.
Authorities determined the animal had been shot in the head.
According to legal documents, on Sept. 28, 2019, Gerbich and another person drove to an elephant seal viewing area adjacent to the Piedras Blancas State Marine Reserve and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary near San Simeon.
Gerbich reportedly was armed with a Springfield Armory .45-caliber XD pistol.
“That night, defendant, aided with a flashlight, used the .45-caliber pistol to shoot and kill a northern elephant seal that was resting on the beach in the Piedras Blancas rookery. The next day, the elephant seal was discovered on the beach with a bullet hole in its head,” according to legal documents.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Law Enforcement initiated an investigation, and later posted a reward for information on the shooting.
In January 2020, after a search of the defendants’ residence, Gerbich confessed to federal agents that he shot the elephant seal, according to federal court documents.
Northern elephant seals are a protected species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
They live along North America’s Pacific coast, and haul out on land in areas called rookeries, which are typically populated with elephant seals year-round.
The plea agreement recommended that Gerbich serve a 6-month term in prison, followed by a 1-year period of supervised release.
The deal also included that three months of the recommended term of imprisonment may be satisfied by Gerbich serving three months of home detention during his supervised release.
U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer has scheduled an April 12, 2021, sentencing hearing, at which time Gerbich will face a statutory maximum sentence of one year in federal prison.
This isn’t Gerbich’s first bout of legal trouble, as he faced two charges in Santa Barbara County Superior Court for possession of a destructive device three years ago.
Santa Maria police announced in November 2017 that they had arrested Gerbich in connection with a homemade explosive device detonated behind a business four months earlier.
Officers were dispatched on July 18, 2017, to the alley on the 300 block of West Betteravia Road regarding an explosion in a trash bin.
At the time, county firefighters were battling the Alamo Fire east of Santa Maria and the Whittier Fire in the Santa Ynez Valley.
Under a deal, he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of possession of a destructive device, and was sentenced to 60 days in jail plus three years informal probation.