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Fall Semester Begins

August 12th, 2024


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May 19th, 2024

CALS’ Aquatic Animal Law Course Offers a Deep Dive Into Legal Protections for Aquatic Animals

71% of the Earth’s surface is covered with water. Aquatic habitats such as oceans, coasts, rivers, ponds and lakes are home to a plethora of diverse living beings, from single-celled planktons to the largest animal on Earth, the blue whale. Aquatic animals play an important role in environmental protection because they contribute to nutrient cycling, oxygen production, and carbon sequestration in marine and freshwater environments. Additionally, aquatic ecosystems are some of the most intricate and fragile of any found on the planet. From an anthropocentric perspective, aquatic animals offer substantial cultural and aesthetic value to human beings, and activities such as swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving have often centered on the desire to observe wild animals as they go about their lives. Undoubtedly, every aquatic animal possesses unique characteristics and interests, ranging from the migratory patterns of sea turtles to the intricate social structures of dolphins.  

Unfortunately, aquatic animals face many threats in the modern world. Aquatic animals are exploited by human beings in a number of ways that compromise their well-being. While trillions of aquatic animals are caught or farmed for consumption as food each year, around 15 million are used in research and testing. Additionally, aquatic animals are kept as ornaments, companions, or used for entertainment in zoos and aquariums around the world. 

In addition to direct exploitation, aquatic animals also face indirect threats.  One significant menace is habitat destruction and degradation caused by human activities such as pollution, coastal development, and climate change, which impacts the lives of many wild animals. Pollution, in the form of plastic debris, chemicals, and oil spills, poses direct threats to aquatic life, leading to entanglement, ingestion, and poisoning. Climate change exacerbates these threats by altering ocean temperatures, acidity levels, and sea levels, leading to habitat loss and disrupting food chains. Addressing these multifaceted challenges requires coordinated efforts at local, national, and international levels to mitigate human impacts and ensure the long-term survival of aquatic animals and their ecosystems.

Aquatic Animal Law

Aquatic Animals in the Law

While many national and international laws attempt to address aquatic life as a collective, few pay attention to the interests of individual beings. Although aquatic animals are also individuals who suffer and have subjective experiences, both positive and negative, the law often does not take these experiences into account. There are a myriad of reasons for why aquatic animal protection is overlooked by the law. 

Firstly, the public may have misconceived notions about the sentience of aquatic animals, their ability to suffer, or their cognitive and emotional capacities. While charismatic aquatic animals such as whales, dolphins, and polar bears receive public attention due to their similarity to human beings, others like finfish, crabs, and octopuses are relatively ignored, even when trillions are caught each year during the course of commercial fishing or farmed for food in aquaculture facilities.

Secondly, the law often overlooks aquatic animal protection due to the animals’ inherent invisibility and the difficulty humans face in relating to their underwater existence. Unlike terrestrial species, whose habitats and behaviors are more accessible for observation and study, many aquatic animals inhabit environments that are largely hidden from human sight. This invisibility makes it challenging for policymakers and the public to fully grasp the significance of their welfare and the threats they face. Additionally, the disconnect between human societies and aquatic environments can lead to a lack of empathy and understanding towards the needs of marine and freshwater animals. 

Lastly, there is a large gulf between scientific evidence of aquatic animal sentience and public perception of what aquatic animals are capable of. While aquatic animals have not historically been studied with the same vigor as terrestrial animals, there is now an abundance of scientific evidence that many aquatic animals, such as fish, are sentient and capable of feeling pain, stress, and fear. However, many people still view fish as mere commodities, typically describing them in terms of volume or weight, instead of as individuals who are bred, caught, or killed. This means that animal cruelty often goes unrecognized where aquatic animals are concerned.

Uses of Aquatic Animals 

Aquatic animals are utilized and exploited by human beings in various ways, including:

  1. Entertainment in Zoos and Aquaria: Many aquatic animals, such as whales, dolphins, sea otters, and penguins, are kept in zoos and aquariums worldwide for public display and entertainment purposes. They are often trained to perform tricks and behaviors to attract visitors, despite captivity taking a negative toll on their mental and physical well-being.
  2. Research and Testing: Aquatic animals are frequently used in scientific research and testing for medical, environmental, and behavioral studies. Approximately 15 million aquatic animals are used in scientific testing in the United States every year. Unfortunately, some aquatic animals such as zebrafish are considered adequate replacements for mammals like primates in research, with the use of aquatic animals being considered a way to enhance, not compromise, animal welfare in research. 
  3. As Food: A significant number of aquatic animals are caught or farmed for human consumption. Fish, shrimp, crabs, and other marine species are caught via commercial fishing, or farmed in onshore or offshore aquaculture facilities for their flesh or eggs. Animals suffer significant stress when chased, caught, transported or slaughtered, and few laws cater to these aspects of the animal’s experience. 
  4. As Companions at Home: Some aquatic animals, such as fish, turtles, and amphibians, are kept as pets in home aquariums. While this practice can provide companionship and aesthetic enjoyment for owners, it also raises concerns about animal welfare and cruelty or neglect towards the animals involved.

Aquatic Animal Law

The Aquatic Animal Law course at the Center for Animal Law Studies at Lewis & Clark Law School is a one-of-its-kind course aiming to discuss how the law does or does not cater to the interests of individual aquatic animals used by human beings. Taught by Professor Hira Jaleel and offered both online and in person for advanced degree students in the LLM in Animal Law and MSL in Animal Law programs, the course delves into laws affecting the welfare of aquatic animals, whether found in the wild, consumed as food, or used for entertainment or research. Students learn about international law instruments and recent international developments geared towards or affecting aquatic animals. Furthermore, using both statutory and case law, the course examines how various U.S federal and state laws, as well as laws of certain jurisdictions outside the U.S, protect aquatic animals or fail to do so. Finally, students examine contemporary issues pertaining to aquatic animals, such as debates around octopus farming and the ethics of genetically engineering fish. Throughout the course, students are encouraged to think about how future laws and policies can be shaped to better protect the interests of aquatic animals given the unique challenges these animals face.

Notable topics discussed during the course include: 

  1. Scientific evidence around aquatic animal sentience, as well as reasons why the law so often overlooks aquatic animals and treats certain species of aquatic animals as more important than others.
  2. U.S. laws and agencies involved with regulating aquatic wild animals, most notably cetaceans such as whales and dolphins, in captivity. Notable federal laws discussed in this context include the Animal Welfare Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The role of agencies responsible for administering these laws, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Marine Fisheries Service (also known as NOAA Fisheries) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is also highlighted. 
  3. Animal cruelty in the aquatic animal context and the extent to which existing state level anti-cruelty laws protect aquatic animals, as well as how courts have historically dealt with cases of cruelty to aquatic animals. 
  4. The U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, dually administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries, and its strengths and weaknesses when it comes to safeguarding marine mammals as individuals.
  5. The rise of aquaculture around the globe, the scale at which aquatic animals are farmed for food, and what this means for individual aquatic animals and their welfare. 
  6. How fisheries are regulated in the United States under, among other laws, the federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The course also explores the relationship between aquaculture and commercial fishing.
  7. The role of international law and international bodies in protecting aquatic animals from harm.
  8. Laws and regulations governing the use of aquatic animals in biomedical research and testing…

… and more. 

CALS Alumni working for Aquatic Animals 

As a trailblazer in animal law education, CALS’ alumni are at the forefront of the fight to protect individual aquatic animals through the law. Over the years, some alumni achievements of note include the following:

Alice Di Concetto (LLM ’16, France) is the Founder of the European Institute for Animal Law and Policy, and has recently published her work on the Treatment of Wild Caught Fish under EU Conservation Law. In her paper, Alice and her co-author evaluate the effectiveness of EU conservation statutes in achieving minimal protections for wild fish. 

Lu Shegay (LLM ’20, Kazakhstan) is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of the Institute of Animal Law of Asia. Lu was the 2021-2022 CALS Ambassador in the Global Ambassador Program (GAP) under which she worked on the project “Enhancing Legal Regulations for Aquatic Animals in Kazakhstan.” Her project focused on raising awareness about the detrimental effect of human activities on aquatic animals, the necessity to give sufficient attention and legal protection to aquatic animals, and the bitter truth about the life of aquatic animals in captivity.

Amy Wilson (LLM ’19, South Africa) is the founder and Acting Executive Director of Animal Law Reform South Africa. Through her organization, Amy has worked to improve animal welfare in aquaculture through legislation in South Africa. Amy is also currently co-authoring the first aquatic animal law textbook in the world.

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