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Published: Monday, 6/28/2010

Nature's way

In what can only be described as a perversion of the powers of the National Marine Fisheries Service, sea lions doing what comes naturally - eating fish - are subject to the death penalty.

That's right, the death penalty. By rifle, in fact, but not by firing squad.

The unusual circumstances developed because sea lions are not stupid. Their instincts have led them to the Bonneville Dam spillway in the Pacific Northwest because - this is not surprising - that's where the fish are. Salmon, to be precise.

And, in the name of protecting the fish, a five-year exemption was carved out of the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 so that any sea lion that makes a habit of snacking on the salmon can be shot dead.

The strongest advocates of protections for fish, mammals, birds, and other wildlife never envisioned a sort of a civil war being waged on behalf of competing interests of nature's bounty, but that's just what is happening at the base of the Columbia River. The fisheries service is concerned about the decline of salmon, yet it says only 4 percent of the run is being consumed by sea lions.

A more sensible way to protect the salmon, suggested University of Southern California law professor Christopher Stone in a piece he wrote recently for the Washington Post, would be to impose limits on the catches of fishermen, human beings who can understand such things, rather than on sea lions, which presumably cannot read federal regulations and thus are led only by their noses.

Flexibility and not rigidity is necessary in drafting and interpreting regulations designed for the benefit of animals.

The fisheries service would be wise to follow the words of Chief Edward Moody of the Nuxalk Nation in British Columbia: "We must protect the forests for those who can't speak for themselves such as the birds, animals, fish, and trees. "

That means sea lions too.

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