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Man charged with stabbing sea lion

August 31, 2007|Tony Barboza | Times Staff Writer

A Garden Grove fisherman accused of fatally stabbing a sea lion that was stealing his bait was charged Thursday with violating the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Hai Nguyen, 24, was charged with a misdemeanor count of taking and "attempting to harass, hunt and kill a California sea lion," according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana on Thursday.

The offense carries a maximum penalty of one year in federal prison and a $20,000 fine.

Nguyen was arrested July 27 in Newport Beach after allegedly stabbing a California sea lion repeatedly with a steak knife. The animal had been swimming near the Balboa Peninsula dock where Nguyen was fishing, apparently so close that he could reach down and stab it.

The sea lion, a 6-foot female weighing about 150 pounds, was trapped by animal control officers and taken to Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach. Doctors determined that the animal could not be saved and euthanized it.

In the 4 1/2 hours that it struggled for its life, rescuers named the sea lion Evidence because it had two things most animals injured by humans lack: eyewitnesses and an arrested suspect.

"To be able to have somebody faced with federal charges is huge," said Michele Hunter, a director at the mammal center. "Hopefully, this will send a message that this is not right. This can't be done."

Encounters between humans and sea lions have become more common in recent years, especially in Newport Beach, where the mammals have wrecked docks and kept residents awake with incessant barking.

Humans have occasionally responded with violence.

In 2005, a fishing boat captain was convicted of shooting California sea lions with a .22-caliber rifle off the coast of Santa Catalina Island, and in 2003, two crew members of a fishing vessel in Morro Bay were charged with shooting a young sea lion in the neck with a crossbow.

"What happens is these creatures see an easy meal in the bait or a hooked fish, and this sometimes prompts an angry reaction from the fisherman, which I think is certainly what happened in this case," said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.

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tony.barboza@latimes.com

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