A Primer on Ethics in the Human Dimensions of Conservation

Think about the word ‘ethics’ for a moment. For some, the word creates images of smiling people sitting around a table, the picture of diversity, happily planning a future in which no one is ever taken advantage of. For others, the image may be of nun-like ascetics peering over your shoulder with an armful of paperwork tied together with a pretty bow of red tape. For still others, it’s something heartily discussed in a liberal arts course or late-night dorm philosophizing during doe-eyed college days. In reality, though, practicing ethics is never as clear-cut an image and making ethics part of daily research life is still a distant goal.

Some fields, like genetics and medicine, have had to confront ethical conundrums head-on and consequently, create a precedent for how we think about ethics in a research and institutional context. Sadly, this precedent is full of angry conflict, covering ethical missteps after-the-fact, and millions of dollars worth of lawsuits. This precedent rightfully leaves many people jumpy about addressing ethics head-on, like the proverbial third-rail of program management that no one dare touch for fear of inviting the flak created in these precedent cases. To use another cliched analogy, ethics then becomes the elephant in the room, except this elephant is staring at you over your cubicle wall and periodically sticking its trunk over the wall to search for peanuts. In reality, choosing to not address ethics amounts to consciously deciding to accept whatever emerges organically, whether you like it or not. So what does this mean for less life-or-death fields that work with stakeholders, like the marine sciences? Let’s start with the foundation that’s already laid.

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A citizen science project to monitor sevengill sharks in San Diego

by Michael Bear

MikeyMichael Bear is  Science Diving Editor for California Diver Magazine and  currently contributor to Marine Science Today with over a 1000 cold-water dives, an AAUS (American Academy of Underwater Sciences) Scientific Diver and  founder of Sevengill Shark Sightings.org. He  lives and work  in San Diego.


I am not a professional shark researcher–just an experienced San Diego diver who has been diving in the San Diego area since 2000. In October of 2008, I began hearing reports of encounters between local San Diego divers and Sevengill sharks, (Notorynchus cepedianus).   At the time, I thought this a bit unusual, since this was the first I had heard of these encounters in nearly a decade of regular diving in the San Diego area and monitoring local Internet dive boards. Between 2000 and 2006, almost no encounters were reported. But in 2008, that all changed and they began appearing on  the dive boards and  lists, one here, two there, five there,  slowing increasing until it was obvious that something was happening–exactly what was not clear–only that more and more encounters were being reported by divers.

Then, in the summer of 2009, I had my own memorable encounter with a Sevengill.   I was diving off of Point La Jolla when a large seven footer glided majestically between me and my dive buddy, who was no more than two meters away from me.   To say we were startled would be an understatement.   It was this incident, along with the increase in reports by other divers, caused me to set up a website  later that same year,  allowing San Diego divers to log and document their encounters with this species, as a sort of  personal citizen science project, because  no local marine institution, including Scripps Institution of Oceanography and NOAA SW Fisheries in La Jolla, had ever done any baseline studies locally prior to this point–I know, because we checked.

New “Exploration Science” program is open for applications, looks pretty freakin’ awesome.


exploration-scienceThe University of Miami has started a new Master of Professional Science program called “Exploration Science“. The program will teach students both the theory and skills behind field-based research, and graduates will be well equipped to lead field research expeditions in a variety of environments around the world.

Classes include “Exploration Technology”, a course on the history of exploration, and an introduction to citizen science which will involve planning a citizen science project. There are also numerous electives available at both the marine science school and main campus, as well as field experiences involving SCUBA diving, aviation, and tropical ecology. The program can be completed in 12-18 months.

“Successful exploration involves a mix of scientific and practical skills as well as sensitivity to the ethical and cultural dimensions of working in different parts of our globe,” said Kenny Broad, director of the Abess Center and 2011 National Geographic Explorer of the Year in a provided press release. “New technologies allow researchers to communicate and share the experience of discovery—from the nosebleed heights to unimaginable depths­—with an audience beyond just scientists. We believe that a specialized curriculum combining risk assessment, decision sciences, and hands-on training in skills ranging from navigation to science diving to remote medicine can further the next generation of explorers.”

Applications are due July 15th.

Disclaimer: my department, the Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy, is a partner in this new program, but despite this conflict of interest, I consider myself more than objective enough to declare that this program sounds pretty freakin’  awesome.

Shark Science Monday: How you can help WhySharksMatter tag sharks!


Those of you who follow me on twitter know that in addition to being a grad student, I work with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources coastal shark survey. This summer, we will be catching and tagging sharks, and we need your help!  From mid-May through August, we’ll take the boat out 2-4 times a week for single-day surveys. We leave around 6 or 7 in the morning and return mid to late afternoon. There is often room for a volunteer or two, and the help is always appreciated.

Since I started advertising this opportunity last week, I’ve received over 150 e-mails inquiring about it. Many of you are asking the same questions, and while I”m always happy to answer questions about sharks, I’m instead going to answer the most common questions in this post.

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Adventures with Citizen Science: perspectives of a shark biologist


Those of you who follow me on Twitter or are friends with me on facebook may have seen that last month, I asked for volunteers to come catch and tag sharks with me here in Charleston. While I was pleased by how excited respondents were for this opportunity, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that involving members of the public in scientific research is an old idea. It’s called Citizen Science.


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