Sciences and Arts for Sustainability - 6th Sunday Talk at the Soroptimists Cologne

Why it is important to know about the destruction of the marine life and what everybody can do something against it.

It's not easy to compete with sunshine on one of the first warm spring-days and entice people from different walks of life and age groups to engage with an unusual topic. Margaret Boeckler, tireless organiser of the get together on Sunday, 20 March 2011, and the other equally committed members of the organising committee, had many discussions with club members and people further afield to get hooked on the subject and accept paying for a talk which promised to be a little bit outside their regular areas of interest. The Soroptimists International of Cologne Römerturm supports several social projects, among them, support young women with an immigration background in Cologne to build an attractive future for themselves. The announcement made the connection between the talk and the social projects that are being developed with the proceeds of ticket sales.

In the end, some 80 people of a wide age spectrum followed the invitation and gathered for the talk, including a group of young women who are part of the project supported by the club. The talk started out with a couple of stories about marine research conditions in the 1970s, when the speaker, Cornelia E. Nauen, did her PhD research in a special research programme in the Baltic, supported by the German Research Foundation. Some of the research about the repopulation of disturbed environments is of increasing relevance several decades on when human intervention in marine and coastal ecosystems is changing habitats and conditions at formerly unknown scales.

The talk then walked the participants through what is meant by biodiversity and what are key drivers putting pressures on natural marine and coastal ecosystems and what that means for their ability to function normally, produce goods and services and what it means for the survival of entire species. By way of example, it may be mentioned that all marine turtles are threatened, because their nesting sites are destroyed, because they drown in ghostfishing nets, they may starve to death from ingesting plastic floating in increasing quantities in the sea and yet other pressures. With all the multiple human interventions, overfishing remains a major source of threat to fishes and marine life.

The fact that shrimp fishing may generate up to 80% of unwanted bycatch of species that will be killed and thrown overboard and habitat levelled surprised the listeners. While generally very well-informed they had not heard about such possible side-effects of eating a shrimp cocktail. And if it's not wild-caught but farmed shrimps, one may still not be entirely reassured, if coastal mangroves have been transformed wholesale into shrimp ponds and shrimp require high protein feeds some of which might serve human consumption directly. Luckily, the growing awareness of buyers and the development and application of improved production standards are helping to change practices for the better, but it does go to show that constant attention is required to what we eat and how the food is produced.

What do such research results tell us? The remainder of the talk turned to exploring the possible implications on living conditions of people in Europe and in developing countries, largely drawn from the natural science research. The facts per se may often be ignored, but they start touching us, when we link them to our own lives and our consumption patterns or the lives of individuals who we meet elsewhere. Sometimes we can meet these people in person, sometimes in a social network on the internet. We are also invisibly connected with many more people than we are aware of through international trade, people movement in tourism or immigration and in countless other ways. The picture to the right shows where some of the fish on our table comes from.

As a one-person presentation, there was no point in claiming to cover the entire spectrum of the sciences and the arts. But it was important to show that a multitude of enquiries and perspectives was necessary to get a more robust and realistic appreciation of how the natural and social world around us is changing and to muster the energy to act together with other in search of alternatives. It was also important to acknowledge that the sciences and the arts have different instruments of enquiry and approaches to understanding, all of which can help us make sense of what's happening around us and act in responsible ways. The powerpoint presentation is available here (in German).

The questions and answer session at the end revealed that the participants were asking themselves and the speaker about practical courses of action to remedy the creeping erosion of marine and coastal ecosystems and their biodiversity. Increasing evidence of fraudulent labelling - in addition to pirate fishing and other serious malpractice - make it more difficult for citizens intent on protecting the seas to exercise pressure primarily through choice at purchase. Political engagement for applying and enforcing the existing rules for responsible fishing practices and honest practice all along the marketing chain is therefore of utmost importance.

The conversation broke up into smaller groups and went on well into the evening. Food for thought and perhaps the beginning of some new collaborations as well.