Giving Science a Second Life in Policy
IAAAM 1991
Nina M. Young
Marine Mammalogist Center for Marine Conservation, Washington, DC

For many years scientists have remained in their academic niches, rarely if ever utilizing or occupying other, more policy-oriented niches. In general scientists view administrative and perhaps policy work with a measure of disdain. In recent years, however, many scientists and aquarists have unwittingly found themselves thrust into the policy arena, primarily because of the public's changing perception about the animals they work with.

Animal rights and animal welfare organizations have elevated for public debate the ethics of capturing and maintaining marine mammals in zoos and aquaria. Extremely vocal groups have galvanized individuals on both sides. Professional relationships and alliances have at the least been strained and in some cases dissolved entirely under the increasing controversy. Unfortunately both sides of the issue have fallen prey to the "guilt by association hysteria in which no attempt is made to judge an organization on its own merit.

The issue has created a divisiveness that has proved costly for the marine environment. Some individuals primarily focus their efforts on the welfare of a few animals; this seems at times disproportionate to the efforts required to save entire species or populations. Because of this mindset we are rapidly losing ground on important conservation issues. If we do not rearrange our priorities we could potentially lose populations or whole species.

A few examples of species in peril and crucial marine environmental issues are:

 The vaquita or Gulf of California harbor porpoise numbers roughly 300 - 500 individuals. Each year an illegal gillnet fishery for the already endangered totoaba, a type of sea bass, and a gillnet fishery for sharks entangles and drowns more than 35 porpoises. If this level of mortality continues the vaquita could be extinct by the year 2000.

 The endangered baiji or Chinese river dolphin, numbering only 300 animals, is declining. Despite legal protection the baiji are killed incidentally in "rolling hook" long line and gillnet fisheries and accidentally by vessel collisions and explosions during contraction along the bank of the Chang Jiang River (Yangtze River). Unless trends are reversed the baiji faces certain extinction by the end of this century.

 Many people in the United States are familiar with the plight of the West Indian manatee. After more than twenty years, conservationists are still trying to save this endangered species. Roughly 1,268 to 1,465 manatees remain in Florida. Habitat alterations and vessel collisions have contributed greatly to the population's continued decline.

 In the l990s marine pollution will probably become one of the major threats to marine life. Pollution-related mortality events both catastrophic (the Exxon Valdez oil spill) and insidious (the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico die-off) in nature will continue to claim marine mammal lives until we correct or prevent their causes and fully ascertain their effects on marine mammals and the marine environment.

 Marine mammals often compete for commercial fish species; in the United States this often results in their incidental entanglement in gillnets and trawl nets. For example, harbor porpoises are frequently entangled in gillnets off the California and Northeast Atlantic coasts. Also fisheries may contribute to the decline of marine mammal populations when they overfish certain commercial fish stocks, as is suspected in the decline of Steller sea lions in Alaska.

Understanding the Environmental/Animal Activist Community

With a myriad of conservation issues facing us how does a scientist or veterinarian determine what role to play? How does a scientist or veterinarian identify which groups and what type of group is working on a particular issue?

Just as taxonomists tend to lump and split certain species taxonomically, the general public tends to lump conservation, animal welfare, and animal rights groups together under "environmental" groups. However, those that work in these fields know there are some very real differences between the three types of groups.

Most large conservation groups advocate responsible, sustainable use of natural resources, although even among groups protectionist perspectives vary. Conservation groups also tend to approach issues from an ecosystem perspective -- maintaining entire ecosystems and species diversity. However, this might not be evident in their direct mail solicitation. Direct mail solicitation often promotes saving one species, for example, elephants, whales, dolphins, or big-horned sheep. That's because the "cuddle quotient" is an important factor when attempting to raise funds from the general public. Organizations often find that it is considerably easier to raise money for whales than for algae, or for a particular species than for its habitat.

The goal of animal welfare organizations, on the other hand, is to protect individual animals and secure the humane and ethical treatment of these animals. While animal rights organizations have similar beliefs, they advocate the rights of an individual animal. That is, animals have the right to live their lives free from the harmful intervention of humans. In general, animal rights and animal welfare organizations tend to address primarily single species or animal treatment issues, approaching the debate more on the grounds of ethics than on science.

Understanding the Need for Science, Scientists, and Citizen Action

To affect or change policy or legislation conservation groups need to:

 develop convincing scientific arguments

 educate the public, and

 enlist the assistance of the public and scientists as activists

Scientists and veterinarians can play a role in each of these areas

Developing convincing scientific arguments and enlisting scientists as activists

Legislators, agency administrators (e.g. Department of Commerce) and attorneys prefer to promulgate regulations and legislation based on the best scientific information or advice available. Lobbying material (booklets or fact sheets), congressional or public hearing testimony, and federal register comments are more credible and useful when founded in scientific fact or even supposition.

Because congressional aides and agency personnel address a large number of issues, they welcome concise factual summaries of issues gathered by professional societies, industry, conservation groups, or professional lobbyists. These summaries are important tools for influencing policy.

However, sometimes conservation issues lead scientific knowledge and we become unable to provide adequate scientific advice because the necessary literature is not yet published or in some cases the experiments have not been conducted. On these occasions scientists become extremely important, often because they have unpublished results and observations or expertise in situations similar to the particular conservation issue in question.

An example is the issue of dolphin feeding cruises. Although there was very little published literature about disease transmission to dolphins and behavioral changes that resulted from feeding wild dolphins, many scientists believed that feeding cruises would be detrimental to dolphins. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has banned the feeding of wild marine mammals because the Center for Marine Conservation and other conservation groups gathered anecdotal information and applicable scientific literature from scientists and veterinarians, provided written comments to NMFS, and testified at public hearings. Some scientists and veterinarians even provided their own additional information and written comments to NMFS.

If scientists and conservationists are going to protect the marine environment and its inhabitants by influencing policy and legislation, the role of scientists and veterinarians is clear. To bring science into the arena of policy and legislation conservationists need scientists and veterinarians to:

 publish and make accessible their scientific research and literature

 provide advice to conservation organizations

 review and if possible endorse comments, testimony, or other publications in areas of their expertise, and

 provide their own written comments, or oral or written testimony on important conservation issues.

The point is that when scientists and veterinarians become either personally involved or contribute to an issue by interacting with a conservation organization, that issue is often resolved more quickly. Furthermore, their scientific knowledge acquires a second life in the arena of conservation and policy - a life that saves the animals they are dedicated to studying and caring for.

Scientists and veterinarians as facilitators of public education and citizen action

Scientists and veterinarians working at zoos and aquaria have a responsibility to work with the facilities' education department to develop state-of-the-art educational programs. This is particularly important now that some individuals have criticized the educational content of zoo and aquarium displays. Scientists and veterinarians can enhance the education department's efforts by providing accurate, updated information about their research and the critical conservation issues they learn about through their professional contacts and societies.

Scientists and veterinarians can become the liaison or the first contact between conservation organizations and their zoo or aquarium education department. By bringing educational departments and conservation groups together, scientists and veterinarians facilitate an alliance that can dramatically increase public awareness on important conservation issues. Conservation groups may be successful in securing critical legislation or regulations to protect marine species by enlisting the assistance of zoos and aquaria. By getting these patrons and members involved in conservation issues through petitions, letter writing campaigns, action alerts, educational pamphlets and brochures.

Researching Conservation and Animal Welfare Organizations

Before you become involved in a particular issue and/or organization, research what is being done. Many organizations have a certain amount of overlap on issues; try to ascertain exactly what each particular organization is doing. Call the organization and request copies of recent newsletters, publications on a particular issue, or an annual report. Also, you can approach the staff working on the issues and ask specific questions or request a copy of the organization's policy statement on a particular issue if one is available.

In conclusion, if we are to resolve many of the environmental issues facing us in this decade our only hope may be the development of a strong alliance between conservation and science. If we together don't influence policy and conserve the species and aquatic ecosystems we work on, we may very well lose them.

Speaker Information
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Nina M. Young
Center for Marine Conservation
Washington, DC, USA

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