Fisheries Ethics, or What Do You Want To Do with Your Scientific Knowledge in Addition to Earning a Living?
Natural resource management involves much more than purely scientific or technological issues; it also involves ethics and values.
In its recent survey of fishery employers, AFS Special Committee on Educational Requirements found that there was a major gap between needed human dimensions expertise and student preparation in that area (Steve McMullin, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, unpublished data). A key aspect of human dimensions is training in professional ethics. Like other professional societies, the Society has standards of professional conduct expected of all members (American Fisheries Society 1997). Three of those standards bear repeating here: (1) clearly separate professional opinion from accepted knowledge or fact in all communications; (2) reject attempts by employers and others to coerce or manipulate professional judgment and advice; and (3) expose scientific or managerial misconduct, including misrepresentation to the public of aquatic science/professional information, by informing the Society president. However, as discussed in Hughes (2014), iron triangles hinder individual implementation of such standards because of substantial pressures from employers, grant sources, and affected industries.
D. L. Bottom (1992) argued that natural resource management involves much more than purely scientific or technological issues because it involves ethical and values considerations regarding how humans relate to the rest of nature. For natural resource professionals, he asked what our ethical responsibilities to the ecosystems or resources we study or “manage” are, as well as to the organizations we represent, and to the current public, and to future generations.
I contend that our first responsibility should be to protect the resource in a sustainable manner. If we fail to do that, current and future generations, as well as our employers and professional societies, will suffer. Like the physicians’ Hippocratic Oath, our first obligations are to our patients—the natural resources. Such protections involve a focus on sustaining ecosystem integrity, with humans as ecosystem stewards versus short-term economic and politically expedient (utilitarian) exploiters (Leopold 1947; Pister 1992; Karr 2009). Of course, ethical treatment of resources also includes ethical treatment of study organisms.
We also have obligations to the public to provide accurate, unbiased information—both to those who depend on the resources that we manage for their living, sustenance, and recreation, as well as to the taxpayers who are supporting our salaries and benefits directly or indirectly. The public needs both our scientific information and our professional opinions (clearly distinguished). Such information and opinions need presentation in scientific publications for review and criticism by scientists, but they also need presentation in nonscientific media where they can be made understandable to educated nonscientists.
Sustainable management of natural resources encompasses sincere obligations to future generations because degraded resources (like government debts and climate change impacts) are transferred from current to future generations. Obligations to future generations are clearly incorporated in U.S. federal law (e.g., National Environmental Policy Act 1969) and in state law (e.g., Oregon Revised Statutes 2011). In addition to legal reasons for concerning ourselves with future generations, Boulding (1970) felt that a society’s long-term welfare is determined by how well current citizens identify with their society spatially and temporally (including the future). Partridge (1992) explained that future generations offer continuity for the things we appreciate and life-transcending meaning for our own existence. Sometimes our obligations to inform the public and our profession may directly conflict with our employer’s decisions and obligations. We clearly have ethical obligations to our employers and funding institutions, but sometimes our obligations to inform the public and our profession may directly conflict with our employer’s decisions and obligations. Lichatowich (1992) wrote that employees tend to feel pressured by employers to be team players and conform to upper-level decisions with which they disagree. But true teams include individuals with differing perspectives and knowledge gathered to attain common objectives (Lichatowich 1992). He felt that it is desirable to disagree with one’s supervisor (in an appropriate manner) and that the intensity of the team player syndrome reduces an institution’s strength and leadership potential. Bella (1992) determined that it is normal institutional behavior to develop and promote assessments or decisions that select information favorable to the managers of those institutions in the short term. He found that conflicting data and interpretations are screened out, those presenting such information are deemed troublemakers, and only supporting information is passed on to higher levels of management. These systemic distortions of information exist in all institutions—leading to an emphasis on narrow deliverables versus social or resource responsibilities, providing little time to think broadly, let alone think and act ethically (Bella 1992).
A scientific approach to obtaining knowledge and making decisions depends on the free and open exchange of information, including real-world observations, pattern analyses at multiple spatial and temporal scales, logic, and tactful disagreements. Especially in natural resource science, it is not the mythical, linear scientific method described in textbooks or envisioned in controlled laboratory settings, let alone groupthink (Kuhn 1962; Bernstein 1983; Bella 1992). Furthermore, science alone does not always speak for itself—especially when it conflicts with current scientific paradigms (Kuhn 1962; Soennichsen 2008), current government policies (Post and Hutchings 2013), iron triangles (Woody et al. 2010), or powerful industries (Aviv 2014). Because institutions tend to avoid unfavorable questions and focus on immediate issues, it is up to professional societies to review those questions and deliberate on long-term and large-scale concerns and policies in our meetings, committees, and journals (Bella 1992). Scientific and policy concerns that are ignored by institutions should be exposed and openly challenged by professional societies; if not, our professional societies will simply become another self-supporting institutional system (Bella 1992). The Society currently has several policy statements needing revision. They are foundation documents from which we advocate for fish, fisheries professionals, and aquatic resources; contribute to public and regulatory policy; and inform the public and our membership. If you would like to help with the revisions, contact me or Jesse Trushenski (email@example.com).
American Fisheries Society. 1997. Standards of professional conduct. Available: fisheries.org/cert_standardsofprofessionalconduct (February 2014).
Aviv, R. 2014. Annals of science: a valuable reputation. The New Yorker 10 February:52–63.
Bella, D. A. 1992. Ethics and the credibility of applied science. Pages 19–32 in G. H. Reeves, D. L. Bottom, and M. H. Brookes, technical coordinators. Ethical questions for resource managers. U.S. Forest Service, General Technical Report PNW-GTR-288, Portland, Oregon.
Bernstein, R. S. 1983. Beyond objectivism and relativism. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.
Bottom, D. L. 1992. Introduction. Pages 1–3 in G. H. Reeves, D. L. Bottom, and M. H.
Brookes, technical coordinators. Ethical questions for resource managers. U.S. Forest Service, General Technical Report PNW-GTR-288, Portland, Oregon.
Boulding, K. 1970. The economics of the coming spaceship Earth. Pages 96–101 in G. deBell, editor. The environmental handbook. Ballentine, New York.
Hughes, R. M. 2014. Iron triangles and fisheries. Fisheries 39:147.
Karr, J. R. 2009. Natural: a benchmark, not a bias. Northwest Science 83:294–297.
Kuhn, T. S. 1962. The structure of scientific revolutions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Leopold, A. 1947. A Sand County almanac. Oxford University Press, New York.
Lichatowich, J. 1992. Managing for sustainable fisheries: some social, economic, and ethical considerations. Pages 11–17 in G. H. Reeves, D. L. Bottom, and M. H. Brookes, technical coordinators. Ethical questions for resource managers. U.S. Forest Service, General Technical Report PNW-GTR-288, Portland, Oregon.
National Environmental Policy Act. 1969. Available: energy.gov/sites/prod/files/nepapub/nepa_documents/RedDont/Req-NEPA.pdf. (February 2014).
Oregon Revised Statutes. 2011. Food fish management policy, §506.109. Available: www.oregonlaws.org/ors/506.109. (February 2014).
Partridge, E. 1992. The moral uses of future generations. Pages 33–39 in G. H. Reeves, D. L. Bottom, and M. H. Brookes, technical coordinators. Ethical questions for resource managers. U.S. Forest Service, General Technical Report PNW-GTR-288, Portland,
Reeves, D. L. Bottom, and M. H. Brookes, technical coordinators. Ethical questions for resource managers. U.S. Forest Service, General Technical Report PNW-GTR-288, Portland, Oregon.
Post, J. A., and J. R. Hutchings. 2013. Gutting Canada’s Fisheries Act: no fishery, no fish habitat protection. Fisheries 38:497–501.
Soennichsen, J. 2008. Bretz’s flood: the remarkable story of a rebel geologist and the world’s greatest flood. Sasquatch Books, Seattle, Washington.
Woody, C. A., R. M. Hughes, E. J. Wagner, T. P. Quinn, L. H. Roulsen, L. M. Martin, and K. Griswold. 2010. The U.S. General Mining Law of 1872: change is overdue. Fisheries 35:321–331.
AFS President Bob Hughes can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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