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Bycatch - or Searching an Ethics for the Oceans

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Stefan Thiesen     Permalink
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--> Assessment of damage inflicted on escaping(excluded individuals

--> Promotion of recommended designs or regulations/legal and economic incentives enforcing their application

3 The role of ethics

We live in the so called media age, and yet even I an environmental professional, a conservationist, a person who even studied (physical) marine sciences, until very recently did not know the order of magnitude of the bycatch issue. As a well educated thinking individual I often feel bad enough about belonging to a species that sees animals as a part of a farming industry, treating creatures very closely related to us as mere commodities. Realizing that we in fact simply throw away huge numbers of animals and destroy their habitats for purely economic reasons personally makes me less than proud about our great species which I have long re-named from Homo Sapiens Sapiens to Homo Sapiens Potentialis. Sometimes only occasionally there is a glimpse of wisdom and ingenuity among the members of my species. But that certainly is not the hallmark of our race. A nuclear bomb is a clever device, but it is at least debateable whether its actual development and deployment can be seen as a sign of intelligence let alone wisdom. The same is true for our general attitude towards resources and our fellow co-habitants on this planet. I fail to see how we can justify 90% discard only to obtain shrimps. We can live without shrimps.

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Often it is said that emotions and philosophy should be kept out of political, economic and scientific discussions. This statement is illogic, as it in itself already is an ethical decision. It inherently puts one set of values above another in that ultimately commercial interests are to be valued higher than anything else. The problem with this view is that economy is not a religion but only a tool, that money is not a value nor an end in itself, but, again, only a means. At the same time there are ancient values and so called common sense that I think are part of what we call culture and civilization. Care. Respect. Caution and yes precaution. The precautionary principle is applied throughout all of our life. Caution and precaution are everywhere. They are part of the human makeup and in fact even the behaviour of higher animals. In situations of uncertainty, we check and verify and choose to not act if the available information is insufficient. We teach our children to look to the left and right before crossing a road; we tell them not to eat unknown berries and not to touch the unknown dog. We bring umbrellas when the sky is grey because it just might rain. We lock our doors and the government affords police systems and ridiculously expensive armies. Out of precaution. The industry especially banks invest enormous effort in risk analysis and management systems. And even within the very limited scope of these artificial man-made systems they tend to fail more often than not. Why then is it that despite the fact that the precautionary principle is a deeply rooted part of our culture, it has been routinely ridiculed over and over again with respect to environmental management on all scales? We now know far too much to go on with such a nonsensical game. And anyone who still needs more facts must be told that precisely our lack of knowledge, our uncertainty, calls for action. Because if the involved complexities and uncertainties especially in the environmental sciences, science is not always the best policy adviser. Scientific controversies are prone to be exploited by diverting political groups and used for their own ends.

ìThere has developed an increasingly intelligent discourse on the subject of the role of science in marine policy and decision making (Ã). This literature attempts to explain how scientific research is used by decision makers in the formulation of marine policies. Essentially, this material has evolved out of the realization that decision making is ultimately a political imperative, with the consequence that policies do not always reflect the findings of scientific research[xii].î

Science does not tell us what to do. Science does not say that wiping out a species is either good or bad. That is an ethical question outside of scientia or knowledge. And there are limits. We must decide for our societies where these limits are. Obviously we do not consider accepting child prostitution on the grounds that it might be a good business. That would be outrageous. We also did not accept mass slaughtering of Dolphins as part of Tuna fishing. But where are the limits? Should it be up to public opinion based upon the cuddle factor of a given animal whether its species will be brought to extinction or allowed to survive? We can talk in sober scientific language about bycatch and destroyed specimens, like US militaries talk about ìcollateral damageî. Or we may see it like Sylvia Earle, who more closely identifies with the marine critters she knows so well:

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ìLittle is being done to change Laws that permit agonizing death by suffocation, strangulation, crushing, drowning, panic, shock, slicing, spearing, or other methods of modern fishing. No one doubts that dolphins, whales, seals and birds feel the burn of rough webbing on exquisitely sensitive skin, the slashing bite of knives and gaffs, the searing shock of separation from close-knit societiesÃand no one should doubt that fish do as well[xiii].î

We loose our sense of being without ethical corner stones supporting us and guiding our actions. Maximizing profit cannot be an ethical end in itself that justifies every form of suffering and destruction, especially when even a Portuguese and hence an EU sardine fisherman only earns about 3000 Euro per year it must be asked in all earnestness: Qui Bono?

[i] Thiesen, S.: Orcawelt, a novel, Norderstedt Verlag, Hamburg (as yet unpublished, translated from German)
[ii] Lighthouse Foundation, http://www.lighthouse-foundation.org, 2007
[iii] S.C. Clarke et al, Ecology Letters, 09/2006
[iv] Currie, D and Parry, G.: Effects of scallop dredging on a soft sediment community: a large-scale experimental study, Mar Ecol Prog Ser, Vol. 134, 1996
[v] Life in the Oceans - Exploring our blue planet, Open University, 2007
[vi] Kibel, P.: Exploitation and Conservation of Marine Resources, University of Exeter, 2007
[vii] Earle, S.: Sea Change A Message of the Oceans, Fawcet Columbine, 1995
[viii] Ellis, R.: A Sea of Blood, Mare, June/July 2006
[ix] This is a quote from a pilot in the Royal Canadian Airforce who flew over the Grand Banks region in the northern Atlantic in the 1950s. Taken from: Life in the Oceans - Exploring our blue planet, Open University, 2007
[x] Kibel, P.: Exploitation and Conservation of Marine Resources, University of Exeter, 2007
[xi] Broadhurst, M.: Modifying Dredges to Reduce By-catch and Impacts on the Benthos, in By-catch Reduction in the WorldÃs Fisheries, Springer, 2007
[xii] Bache, S. and Evans, N.: Dolphin, albatross and commercial fishing: AustraliaÃs response to an unpalatable mix, Marine Policy, Vol. 23, Elsevier, 1999
[xiii] Earle, S.: Sea Change A Message of the Oceans, Fawcet Columbine, 1995

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Stefan Thiesen is a Germany, UK and USA educated earth and space scientist and science writer. He is an expert in marine science, climatology and planetary sciences, author of several popular science books in German and English as well as a novel (more...)

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