Saving the environment has little to do with animal rights.

News and commentary about environmental issues.
May 29 2008 1:20 PM

The Sea Lion and the Salmon

Should we murder one to save the other?

(Continued from Page 1)

The conservationist accepts death and suffering as a natural product of the competition for resources. But faith in free-market biology doesn't always lead to laissez faire environmental policies. In order to preserve biodiversity, the conservationist might intervene to promote the welfare of one species over another, on the grounds that not all animals are created equal. The EDGE of Existence program of the Zoological Society of London combines two scores—extinction risk and evolutionary distinctness—to prioritize species that will maximize the genetic diversity of life on Earth. Screw the Beluga whale (No. 272); we need to save the Cuban solenodon (No. 2)!

While humans may find much to appreciate in Earth's menagerie, it is hard to argue that preserving DNA can justify the murder of a sentient being. Sea lions are remarkable creatures. Some believe their cognitive abilities rival those of chimpanzees: In 1993, a female sea lion at the University of Santa Cruz named Rio became famous for being the first nonhuman animal to understand the transitive property—if A equals B, and B equals C, then C equals A. Single females are known to baby-sit young pups while their mothers go fishing.  And with social animals, the murder of one may well traumatize the entire group, as has been documented in elephants. Salmon, on the other hand, have a brain that looks like a knotted shoelace, and some scientists argue that the absence of a neocortex means the fish lack a psychological experience of pain.


We may have a sense of what it means to kill an innocent sea lion, but it's hard to anticipate the moral consequences of an ecosystem's downward spiral. If we take a consequentialist view of ethics, we cannot distinguish between an action and a lack of action. If the only way to stop a mass murderer were to kill him, and I refused because of my belief that it is wrong to kill, then I would no doubt be responsible for the murderer's future victims. Even if this murderer were severely intellectually disabled—the cognitive equivalent of a pinniped—I would still be compelled to kill him.

Taking this tack, ecologists may argue that it's worth killing sea lions to save the salmon. Salmon eat smaller fish in marine estuaries and carry key nutrients up river systems, where the salmon themselves become food for other fish, birds, and mammals. According to one study, more than 40 species of mammals and birds in Alaska feed—at least some of the time—on salmon and their eggs. Bears and eagles fertilize evergreens with the salmon carcasses they dump onshore. If salmon vanished tomorrow, some animals would find other places to live and other things to eat, but the net effect might be an increase in the number of deaths due to starvation—and a curtailment of whatever pleasure human and nonhuman animals derive from the presence of salmon.

The tricky part is figuring out what those effects would be. A sound conservation ethic cannot be based exclusively on a vague principle of biodiversity or the sanctity of the natural world. Instead, it must respect the interests of sentient beings. We have to ask ourselves if saving salmon will lead to the greatest good for the greatest number, or if the pain inflicted by trapping and killing sea lions year after year will overwhelm whatever greater good is done for our planet.

The truth is that thorny ethical questions like this one can sometimes be avoided altogether. In the dispute over the Columbia River, conservationists and animal rights advocates alike believe that the real problem at Bonneville Dam is the existence of Bonneville Dam. Without that man-made structure, the salmon would not face the bottlenecks that prevent many from getting to their spawning grounds, and sea lions would not find themselves perishing inside a metal trap. So, the one thing we can all agree on is our own misanthropy: We shouldn't be holding animals accountable for the damage humans have wrought.



Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 1 2014 12:20 PM Don’t Expect Hong Kong’s Protests to Spread to the Mainland
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?