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?

A sea lion
A sea lion

On May 4, the blubbery carcasses of six sea lions were discovered inside a trap at Bonneville Dam in Oregon. Animal rights advocates suspected they'd been murdered as part of a long-standing dispute over the complicated ethics of wildlife management.

It began in the late 1990s, when hungry sea lions from the coast started traveling 145 miles up the Columbia River and decimating a local population of endangered Chinook salmon. Fearful that the fish would go extinct, an unlikely alliance formed between commercial fishermen and conservationists. They pressured local wildlife managers to take action, and in March, the federal government granted permission to kill or transplant up to 85 California sea lions per year. But the Humane Society opposed the plan and filed a series of injunctions in district and federal courts to block it. So when sea lion bodies showed up earlier this month, the animal lovers wondered if someone had ordered a hit.

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The question of how to balance the lives of a few pinnipeds against the continuing existence of an entire species reflects an important question: At what point do the rights of an individual animal trump the welfare of an entire ecosystem? Should we murder a few sea lions to save a whole bunch of salmon? For a fish-friendly conservation group like the Wild Salmon Center, support for the cull seems like a no-brainer. But what about broader-based organizations like the Sierra Club? Do the folks who respond to their polar bear cub campaigns understand that species preservation can be cruel—and that saving the environment has little to do with animal rights?

The dream of conservation is to restore the natural world to a time before forests were felled, rivers were poisoned, and species were exterminated. American naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote that "the land is one organism," implying that Mother Earth has a dignity all her own. But to preserve these ecosystems, conservationists must trample the rights of individual animals. An avid hunter, Leopold himself saw no conflict between killing and conservation. Today, wildlife managers prop up species in decline while mandating population control among those that have become too successful. Totalitarian measures that would be shunned in human society—hazing, mass sterilization, forced relocation, and sometimes genocide—are all part of the conservationist's toolbox. I consider myself green-minded, but I can't accept the idea that we should sacrifice compassion to save every single species on the planet.

First off, the public—and the legal system—are not so quick to dismiss animal rights. Last year, James Stevenson, founder of the Galveston Ornithological Society, faced up to two years of jail time on charges of animal cruelty after shooting a cat that he believed was killing endangered piping plovers. Indeed, according to the National Audubon Society, feral cats kill hundreds of millions of native birds and small animals in the United States each year and are second only to the loss of wilderness in causing species extinctions. Does that mean the cat's painful death was worth less than its incremental contribution to the loss of bird species? Apparently flummoxed by this question of environmental ethics, the jury deadlocked—and prosecutors have decided not to retry the case.

The picture is just as fuzzy when it comes to those who try to prevent the murder of animals. In 2002, the National Park Service bombed California's Anacapa Island with a rodent-killing poison to wipe out nonnative black rats, which were scarfing down the eggs of local seabirds. Outraged by this indiscriminate killing, activist Rob Puddicombe and a companion traveled to the island to administer an antidote to the poison. They were arrested and charged with "feeding wildlife" and "interfering with a federal function." Puddicombe was cleared in 2003, but his companion pleaded guilty and was fined $200. (Their efforts didn't pay off: The rats were exterminated.)

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.

Brendan Borrell is correspondent for the Scientist and has written about wildlife for Smithsonian and Natural History. His e-mail address is bborrell@hotmail.com.

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