Dolphin-hugging scientists

I was talking yesterday with a friend of mine who works at the University of British Columbia's Fisheries Centre, which has long been at the forefront of research into the scope of the decline of fish species around the world. He said it's good to see so many scientists finally willing to take a public stand on what is clearly a crisis in the oceans.

Now, assuming a position on a matter of public policy is very different from issuing a statement on the science involved in the issue. In climate change, for example, there remains considerable debate over just how alarmist climatologists should be -- not because what the science has found isn't alarming, but because some scientists aren't comfortable telling what politicians what to do.

Fortunately, in my opinion, that stance is losing ground, and marine biology is perhaps one of the best examples of the shift. This weekend came the news that a large number of leading cetacean researchers have decided it's not enough to quietly go about their studies while atrocies are committed. Instead they collectively issued a statement condemning the annual dolphin slaughter in Japan.

What makes this statement noteworthy is the language used and the names of those who chose to be associated with that language. Here's the whole thing (italics mine):

We, the undersigned members of the community of marine mammal scientists, veterinarians, and conservation biologists, implore you to put an end to the brutal treatment and unsustainable slaughter of dolphins (including small toothed whales) in the Japanese drive fisheries. Scientific research shows that dolphins are highly intelligent,self-aware and emotional animals with strong family ties and complex social lives. In addition, repeated recommendations from the international scientific and management communities (for example, the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission) to end this hunt have been ignored, and there are no current population assessments of most targeted dolphin species in Japanese waters. We urge you to lead the way and take action in stopping the inhumane treatment and killing of these highly sentient mammals.

We strongly believe that the sourcing of animals from this fishery for any purposes, including human consumption, fertilizer and pet food manufacturing, and live public display, is unethical. We believe it is a violation of the code of professional ethics concerning collection from the wild for any zoo, aquarium or public display facility to be associated with these hunts in any way. This includes the direct sourcing of dolphins from these hunts for education or breeding programs or the indirect exchange of animals with facilities that may be closely associated with a drive fishery.

The list of signers is a virtual who's who of dolphin research -- respectable, peer-reviewed cetacean research:

Randy Wells, Hal Whitehead, Louis Herman, Robin Baird, Christopher Clark, and so on. I don't think I know a similar declaration from biologists that goes out on such an emotional limb. Granted, I probably would have signed it if anyone had asked, but it's still a little surprising, and even a little unsettling, to see such an emotional declaration with such prestigious names attached. I think this is a good thing, but doubt remains.


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I'm not sure this is a good thing at all. This issue is debated endlessly by environmental scientists, of course. In my view, there are three distinct but obviously inter-related areas here: science, policy, and values. Scientists are (mostly) good at science (duh!), and some scientists are also good at contributing to policy development. But why should a scientist's values be taken into consideration any more valuable than those of anyone else?

I think it's critical for scientists to do work that relates directly to policy, and just as important for them to make sure that science is considered in policy development. For example, when Bush and co make ridiculous, ill-informed remarks about the science of global warming, it's entirely appropriate for scientists to blast them mercilessly. But when we start advocating for particular societal goals, we enter an entirely different realm. There's a difference between science being ignored in the formulation of policy, and science being taken into account but the course of action ultimately being steered by other factors.

A whole other can of worms here, especially with the dolphin statement, is culture and socio-economic status. A quick glance through the names and affiliations on the statement suggests a very strong bias toward North America and Europe. So these are mostly affluent people from one particular culture, trying to impose their values on others. Granted, Japan is not a poor country, but when scientists speak emotionally about the need to conserve other species or environments at all costs (e.g., coral reefs), the places in question quite often are very poor. But there is no acknowledgment here of why these people kill dolphins in the first place, and what they might do if they didn't kill dolphins. It's very easy to make this kind of statement if the activity in question is part of someone else's livelihood and/or culture.

OK, enough procrastinating for one day. Actually, enough for a week....

I agree - this statement is almost creepy. I've interacted a bit with Randy Wells and others in the field - and feel that the emotional play almost feeds into one of the biggest problems in marine mammal research: the need for solid science. I work in coral reefs too - and the same emotional argument is brought up all of the time, yet the science is lagging far, far behind the emotion.