May
22
2023

The Role of Agency, Sentience, and Cognition in the Protection of Aquatic Animals

In this project we sought to better understand relationships between scientific and popular views regarding the agency, sentience, and cognition (ASC) of aquatic animals, and policies that protect these animals in the United States. For case studies we chose cetaceans, tunas, and octopuses. For cetaceans, we have well-developed ASC and extinction science, sentinels for both kinds of science, and advocates for the protection of these animals. For tunas we have extinction science and sentinels, but little if any ASC science or sentinels, and advocates to prevent their overexploitation but not for their welfare. With octopuses we have ASC science and sentinels that are beginning to come into view, but little extinction science, and some early advocates for their protection. Cetaceans have cultural significance, and their interests to a great extent now align with broader economic interests. Tunas have localized cultural significance but not as individuals, and remain high value commodities. Octopuses have growing cultural significance, and are also highly valued as commodities.

Comparing these three case studies shows that there is no strong, general relationship between the state of the scientific literature and positive directionality regarding their protection. However, we identified seven key insights about how positive change can occur that suggests that ASC science may generally be necessary but almost never sufficient in leading to greater protection:

1. When science is silent, it speaks volumes; 2. Science matters but so do scientists;
3. No protection without advocacy;
4. Familiarity can breed protection;

5. Protection has multiple, interacting sources; 6. Protection takes many different forms;

7. Legal and regulatory documents often cover their tracks.