The Managed World: Charismatic vs. endangered

There is no place on earth, no matter how remote, untouched by humans. We are mighty: we can trawl the deep, explore the South Pole, and fish every single island in the South Pacific. But as every young nerdling knows, with great power comes great responsibility. “The Managed World” series in the Oyster’s Garter explores the hard choices that come from a human-dominated world.

The first Managed World was about a top land predator: wolves in Yellowstone, and whether we really want wild wolves after all. It seems fitting that the second Managed World is about a top sea predator: sea lions in Oregon, and whether we really want wild salmon after all. This is the conflict: salmon are tasty, and sea lions like to eat them. Salmon populations are plummeting over the Pacific Northwest, but sea lions don’t care and still like to eat them, especially when the salmon are conveniently trapped against the side of a dam. So the sea lions get trapped and removed, unless somebody shoots them when they’re in the traps.

Are sea lions and cormorants really competing with people for fish? If they are, does that justify moving or killing them? What if the fish are endangered (as in the case of the Oregon salmon run)? Does it matter that sea lions are fuzzy and charismatic and about as smart as a dog?

Being just as cold-hearted as my beloved marine invertebrates, I would have said that last question was the least interesting. Who cares if the sea lions are fuzzy? It’s the ecosystem that matters. However, that is not how most people think.This article in Slate Magazine by Brendan Borrell, published last week, ponders the morality of killing (or “murdering,” as the headline says) sea lions to save salmon. The article concludes:

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.

As soon as I read the headline, I screamed into my coffee, “Stop the false dichotomy! If you really want salmon, take down the dam, put more water into the river, and shoot the California Current instead!” This sea lion issue is just bread and circuses. Pit the environmentalists against the animal rights people against the fishermen against the Native Americans, and watch the dam and big agriculture laugh all the way to the bank. If the salmon populations were healthy and not funneled into tiny areas like fish ladders, the sea lions could become too fat to swim and it wouldn’t make any difference. Nothing kills salmon as effectively as habitat destruction.

Now, I am generously going to assume that the Slate article was written by former lab monkeys on several thousand typewriters, and that it is not the best example of the animal rights case. Borrell describes sea lions as “sentient beings” and uses human words to describe animal-related actions. This tactic is a classic creationist tool (like Ben Stein’s Holocaust-evolution nonsense), ignorant at best, and deeply offensive at worst. I am surprised Slate let this kind of sentence through:

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 can only guess that the author thinks that no Native Americans, African Americans, and Holocaust survivors read its environmental articles. Just to pick one target, comparing relocating some sea lions to the Trail of Tears is unimaginably inappropriate. And on a more scientific note, the premise of the article – cute ‘n’ fuzzy vs. endangered – is doubly wrong. The two Steller sea lions killed in Oregon are also listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Borrell’s poor animal rights arguments aside, here’s the big picture: this entire issue goes back to energy and climate change. The dams are carbon-free hydroelectric power – but they kill the salmon runs. The “unfavorable oceanographic conditions” that caused the salmon failure in the first place may be worsened by climate change. If the shallow streams in which the salmon spawn are too hot (because of climate change and not enough water), the salmon also fail. And there’s not enough water in the streams because the water goes to agriculture, and there will be more agriculture because the price of food is skyrocketing – because of food diverted to ethanol.

So what seems to be a simple case of six sea lions getting shot explodes into a thorny mess of energy policy and water rights. The Slate article does redeem itself slightly by concluding with a discussion of the dam issue, finally saying, “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.”

Too bad. Everything on this earth is accountable, from phytoplankton to sea lions, and they are under our power. In a world with no wild places, we get to decide whether we want feral cats or migrating birds, hydro power or salmon, and bickering over cute fuzzy things or real action.

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