The story of chicks and chunks: a tough ethical dilemma

When I saw that Paul’s post was about chicks and tuna, I had an overwhelming urge to Google “naked women + fish” …  hmmm1

There was a very interesting talk yesterday by prof. Sean Pascoe of CSIRO on ‘chicks and chuncks: a story of tuna and birds’. It raised an unusual ethical dilemma. Let me explain.

Tuna fishing in this country is a 50 million dollar industry that takes place mainly on the East coast of NSW, and then particularly around Lord Howe Island which is home to a colony of shearwater birds. These birds now and then get trapped in the hooks of the tuna boats. What happens is that these boats let sink lines with hooks and baits to the depths that the tuna lives, and these shearwater birds dive into the water to get the baits. Thus they get trapped and drown. Enough of them drown to have lead to the colony on Lord Howe Island to have dropped below 20,000 breeding pairs, which is enough to list them as vulnerable and has prompted action by the environmental agencies.

Now, it has turned out in recent years that its not easily technically feasible to modify the boats such that the unintended deaths of the shearwater is avoided to the degree that they cease to decline. Hence the next policy on the table is to ban tuna fishing around Lord Howe island, which would amount to something like over half the tuna catchment area. Now the interesting bit comes in: it appears possible to stabilise the shearwater population by eradicating the rats on Lord Howe island who eat the eggs and chicks of the shearwater. Indeed, in terms of numbers of shearwaters saved that would be even better than banning tuna fishing. Sean calculated that the rat option would cost about 100 dollars per additional breeding pair, whilst banning tuna fishing would cost about 10,000 dollars per additional breeding pair.

The crux of the debate that ensued yesterday was whether we Australians are really interested in the numbers of these shearwater birds (there are plenty of them in other places) or whether we care about the idea that some of them die from drowning in order for us to enjoy a tuna sandwich. The later may sound strange to those who just see the environment as a source of services, but itâs a principle we apply in many cases: we donât as a society condone the killing of dogs and horses, not even if someone promises to breed more dogs and horses as a replacement. We donât care about the distress of animals per se because we make no effort to prevent dogs from hurting each other or from them hurting other animals. No, what we outlaw as a society is humans harming them deliberately for a reason we donât recognise as valid (i.e. its ok in self-defence but not as sport).

Note in this case the enormous difference in costs involved: itâs a hundred times cheaper to ensure the continued existence of one more shearwater via rat extermination than it is to prevent on shearwater from drowning in the process of fishing for tuna. And yet, Iâm not certain that when the facts get into the media that our society wouldnât choose to value the accidental death of one shearwater above the existence of a hundred other shearwaters.

It raises other thorny ethical issues as well: as long as we didnât know about this, we probably wouldnât care about any of this, just we donât raise an eyebrow about the ants we squash when walking on the pavement. Ts the act of having this brought to our attention that brings into existence our willingness to do something about it: weâre ex ante ignorant of our preferences on this sort of issue which raises the utilitarian problem of figuring out whether it should be the job of the government to bring this to our attention so we can make informed choices or indeed to deliberately hide it in order to save us the distress of knowing all this.

A final interesting ethical aspect is that it forces us to acknowledge that we have an implicit hierarchy of animals in mind: a dead shearwater is more important than a dead rat, and probably less important than a dead dog or whale. A rational government maximiser would then explicitly or implicitly need a cardinal map of all this: how many shearwaters count as one dog? What is the ratio between having a human killing one cat for sport versus a human killing a thousand tunas for catfood? Very tricky.

  1. KP[]
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Francis X Holden
17 years ago

ken – a correction.

You might have googled naked women + fish.


She’s not naked and there is no fish.

17 years ago

One might add that the choices on offer have different selective pressures on the populations, a question almost never address by even the most green of ethical questioning,

Which is ‘better’ in the long term for the survival of the sheerwater?

An addendum question would consider this population only, versus the metapopulation of sheerwaters.

The current great chain of being moral hierarchy depends on the history of concern over cruelty to animals, through omission, neglect and, particularly, sadistic intent. This is of course arises from usual anthropomorphic projections, that the theory of mind we have evolved with, regards as all important points when addressing behaviour in terms of culpability and immorality. Economic considerations are supposed to be amoral in judgment and real uncosted impacts are shoved into ‘externalities’. Ecological concerns are even more amoral but when impacted can kick us in the teeth even if some moral agent (or not, vis-a-vis corporations) escapes the direct cost and/or punishment.

But the human actor moves in all three sphers, must be time to bring them together somehow.

wish I had some ideas, but I don’t

Brendan Halfweeg
Brendan Halfweeg
17 years ago

I wonder if there isn’t another thing going on as well, the birds adapting their behaviour to the humans. Sea birds are notorious for following around trawlers to gather easy pickings from discarded catches and bait. The tuna fishermen may well be making life a little easier for the shearwater birds, and that it is really the rats that are responsible for the decling population. I am only postulating here, I don’t really know, but it may not even be as clear cut as ban tuna fishing or control rats or both. Perhaps the unconscious group behaviour of the birds results in some deaths from scavenging, but results in a healthier colony overall.

I remember when I was working at Olympic Dam mine in South Australia and living at Woomera. Every day we’d drive the hour long journey between the town and the mine, and every day we would see the carcasses of kangaroos and emus lying on the road. Tragic for the kanagaroos and emus, yes, but the eagles in the area were loving it, seeing as they will resort to the easy life of the carion eater rather than preditor if they can. Now the eagles of the South Australian desert are glorious animals and it was a little sad to see them reduced to little more than glorified seagulls, but their population was boostered by the easy pickings. Even the kangaroo and emu populations were boostered by man bringing artesian water to the surface where there were little or no natural water.

I don’t think it is the government’s role to highlight these issues, nor to intervene either. If Lord Howe were private land, then it would easily become a thing of land management in keeping the vermin population down. Green Peace or some other charity could buy the island and keep it in as pristine condition as they can afford.

derrida derider
derrida derider
17 years ago

I think this sort of issue really goes to the question of just what it is conservationists wish to conserve. As I’ve noted previously, there’s a big difference between saying “don’t shit in our own nest because we’ve got to live in it” and “we’ve no right to shit in our nest because it’s more valuable than our convenience”. Personally, I’m strongly in favour of the first.

And you’re right that in popular consideration of these things there’s a surprising amount of simple aesthetics involved. The best example here is the furore over the Canadian harp seal cull. They lost the PR battle just as soon as the media adopted the term “baby seals” instead of “seal cubs”, which in turn happened because the seal cubs had neotenous faces (flat, round, tiny nose, big eyes). If they’d had rat-like noses and small oval eyes no-one would have cared a hoot.

Still I reckon it would be a shrewd move by the fishermen to preempt the argument by funding the rat eradication themselves. It’s even good economics (Coase Theorem and all that).

Damien Eldridge
17 years ago

Paul, nice post!!! A couple of on the issue ignorance. First, are we ex ante ignorant of our preferences about this? Or are we just ignorant that the deaths are occuring? Second, one of the interesting things about strategic settings is that more information is not always preferred to less. More information can remove our ability to credibly commit to a a particular strategy. Fina Also, the idea of strategic ignorance is interesting.

Damien Eldridge
17 years ago

Clearly, I did not adequately edit my previous comment (number 5) on this thread. It should read as follows:

“Paul, nice post!!! A couple of points on the issue ignorance. First, are we ex ante ignorant of our preferences about this? Or are we just ignorant that the deaths are occuring? Second, one of the interesting things about strategic settings is that more information is not always preferred to less. More information can remove our ability to credibly commit to a a particular strategy.”

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
17 years ago

Brandan, as I understand it both the environmental agency and Sean believe tuna fishing really is a significant factor in the deaths of the birds. Something like 0.7 birds per 1000 hooks. Maybe they’re mistaken but it doesnt seem that way.
Derrida, I hope the fishermen are listening to you. They may well do as you suggest.
Damien, thanks. Probably some people have ex ante preferences but didnt know about the deaths. I personally had never heard of the sheerwater before this talk by Sean so I certainly had preferences created over something I didnt have them before. Can you explain the strategy bit in this seeting?