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Sea lion stabbed; man jailed

A fisherman allegedly knifed the animal after it ate his fishing bait in Newport Beach. It was later euthanized. Bystanders called police.

July 28, 2007|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

A 24-year-old fisherman was arrested in Newport Beach on Friday for allegedly stabbing a California sea lion repeatedly with a steak knife after the animal stole his bait.

The sea lion, a six-foot female weighing about 150 pounds, was severely wounded and was later euthanized.

"It's a horrible thing," said Dean Gomersall, animal care supervisor at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, where the animal was put to death 4 1/2 hours after the attack. "It's very cruel. My crew is extremely upset, and we're just glad the person was caught."

Hai Nguyen of Garden Grove, who was being held at Newport Beach Jail on $20,000 bail, is expected to be arraigned early next week on a charge of felony cruelty to animals.

Authorities said the case also is being investigated by the U.S. attorney's office for possible federal charges under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Police say Nguyen was fishing off Newport's M Street pier about 12:30 p.m. when the sea lion apparently took the bait from his fishing pole.

The fisherman became upset, they said, and stabbed the animal at least twice with a steak knife.

"It was close enough so he could just reach out and stab it in the water," said Sgt. Evan Sailor, a police spokesman. "A number of people witnessed it and called police."

Nguyen was arrested without incident at the pier, Sailor said.

The wounded animal, meanwhile, was recovered by volunteers from the marine mammal center in Laguna Beach, who discovered that one of the knife wounds had pierced its heart.

The sea lion was euthanized about 5 p.m.

Encounters between sea lions and humans have increased and become a problem in recent years along the coast, particularly in Newport Beach, where the mammals have wrecked docks, kept residents awake with incessant barking and left strong odors. Once, they even sank a sailboat.

City officials responded by making it illegal to dump bait, fish waste and other sea lion attractions into the harbor and later tried to shoo them away with an automated water gun.

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center rescues and treats 100 to 200 animals a year, Gomersall said, mostly sea lions who have been caught in nets, punctured with hooks or tangled in lines.

A few times a year, he said, they encounter sea lions who appear to have been intentionally shot or stabbed, though it is rare for a perpetrator to be caught.

Nguyen could face a $25,000 fine and up to a year in prison if convicted on the animal cruelty charge.

In addition, said Martina Sagapolu, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Commerce, a conviction on federal charges of violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act could add $12,000 in civil penalties, criminal fines of up to $20,000 and additional jail time.

Sea lions are protected, Gomersall said, because, among other things, they act as a "litmus test for the state of the ocean," their health being a barometer of environmental conditions.

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david.haldane@latimes.com

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