La conferenza dell'Unione europea per le geoscienze (EGU) di quest'anno ha colpito un nuovo record con circa 14.500 partecipanti registrati. Nonostante le tante sessioni orali parallele nell'ampia Austria Center di Vienna, molti contributi erano manifesti in due immense sale. Mundus maris ha presentato un manifesto intitolato "Le pratiche criminali nella pesca ei loro effetti perversi nell'Africa occidentale".

The poster by Aliou Sall and Cornelia E Nauen is ased on field research in Senegal and neighbouring countries. The authors argue that the scale of illegal practices, needs to be classified as criminal and no longer as a fisheries management problem.

The perpetrators are mostly international industrial fleets operating across borders alternating between organised crime and activities within legitimate agreements.

This makes prosecution particularly difficult for under-resourced authorities in developing countries with insufficient means for monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) and little capacity to use earth observation technology to track exploitation patterns. The net results are firstly significant financial losses for the countries, estimated by Doumbouya et al. (2017)(1) for the North-West African countries at US$ 2.3 billion per year.

Silvia Peppolone introduced the geoethics session streamThe poster provoked interesting discussions, both because it helped expose the scale of illegal practices and because it triggered surprise and new thinking about them as international organised crime and what would be most promising steps to protect people, jobs and the environment in the region from this plunder. These are:

1. systematic prosecution by national and international anti-crime procedures,
2. increase of public awareness and change in perceptions, including through more critical engagement of scientists,
3. prohibition of transshipments,
4. adoption of global catch registration schemes, and
5. capacity strengthening of both public institutions and people suffering the consequences.

Click here to see the poster. Only days after the conference was the problem echoed in a much noted article in the New York Times by Andrew Jacobs based on five years of painstaking research reconstructing real fisheries catches in the region. That research led by Dyhia Belhabib of the Sea Around Us Project in collaboration with many colleagues in the region distinguished for the first time systematically between industrial, artisanal, subsistence and recreational catches as well as between legal and illegal ones. 

Johanna Ickert enhances researcher's communication skills through film makingThe topic fit well into the stream of sessions addressing geo-ethics and the challenge to communicate the earth sciences more effectively to citizens around the globe in order to engage together for ethical behaviour towards the planet and all its inhabitants.

Dr. Silvia Peppoloni from the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology in Rome introduced the opening session. She noted that given the size of the conference, only 12 oral presentations could be accommodated, while the other 61 abstracts in the stream had been invited to present in the poster session. She also took stock of the rapid growth of the International Association for Promoting Geoethics. Within a only a few years of its foundation, the Association had attracted more than 1500 members in 111 countries. The so-called Cape Town Declaration of IAPG provided the framework for a fertile debate.

Stefano Tinti and Alberto Armigliato shared Reflections on the fundamentals of geoethics. There is a long tradition claiming ethical behaviour at the heart of the environmental movement on which the geosciences can build. Several other speakers and participants asking questions examined meanings and implications of the principles laid out in the Declaration and helped clarify the understanding of the concept.

David Crookall (l) and Pimnutcha Promduangsri during the Fish Bank presentationJohanne Ickert of Plymouth University showed an example of how the collaboration between scientists and professional film-makers could generate new insights and critical engagement. Using film as a method, she had asked questions such as: 'how can the process of film-making increase awareness of researchers about the ethical and socio-cultural dimensions of their work?' and 'how to improve their interdisciplinary collaboration skills?'. She successfully triggered self-critical thinking among scientists participating in a workshop and helped to develop crucial story telling skills. Telling such stories was building bridges between scientists of different disciplines and between researchers and ordinary citizens and opening interesting fresh communication channels. These are important for fostering ethical principles and their application.

David Crockall of the Université de Nice Sophia Antipolis reported on extensive work on an updated version of the game Fish Banks. The original version of Fish Banks, created by Limits to Growth author Dennis Meadows in 2001, is a role-playing board game in which groups of players operate fishing companies. Together with Pimnutcha Promduangsri he used his experience with coaching players through extensive debriefings after their companies had gone bust - an experience many, if not most players go through - to discuss the ethics of educational methods to teach geoethics.

Jan Boon has worked a lot with the mining industryThe emotions experienced when playing the game offer a much stronger learning experience about balancing the environment and profits than just lecturing about sustainable use of common pool resources.

Chris Cuomo, professor of philosophy and women's studies at the University of Georgia, USA, introduced yet another aspect. She challenged the sometimes loose use of the term 'anthropocene' as a geological epoch and invited more caution in declaring the end of the holocene in order to maintain some of the moral obligations associated with both human and non-human agency vis-à-vis the Earth.

The following session addressed how to deliver geosciences in ethical and effective ways for serving societal needs and examples from practice in Austria and an international data infrastructure (EPOS). Jan Boon concluded that part with an analysis of industry codes and the extent to which they already integrate geoethics into their principles.

The geoethics theme has come a long way since the 2015 session, when Mundus maris presented its first poster contribution to the field. The debates on how to engage the earth sciences more effectively with citizens and societal concerns. attracted only one session then and an entire series in 2017. It still feels like a lot more ground needs to be covered so that ethical positions become part of normal practice in academic science and business.

Brief text account and pictures by Cornelia E Nauen.


(1) Doumbouya, A. et al., 2017. Assessing the Effectiveness of Monitoring Control and Surveillance of Illegal Fishing: The Case of West Africa. Frontiers in Marine Science, Vol. 4, Art. 50:10 p. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2017.00050