Ethics needed in fieldwork as well as the lab

After 1,000 fish were killed in a research project, Biological Conservation editors recommend stricter ethical guidelines for conservation fieldwork

Fish trapped in a gill net. (Photo © istockphoto/ShaneGross)

A group of researchers recently killed over one thousand fish to prove something that is already well-established: there tend to be more fish inside marine protected areas where fishing is prevented than outside the areas. In their study, the researchers used gill nets, which are indiscriminate in what they catch and kill, and failed to report the dead animals of other species of “by-catch.”

As journal editors, we (Richard Primack and Mark Costello) were faced with a tough decision. Was this fieldwork ethical?

When we asked the researchers why they had not used non-lethal methods, such as underwater videos, hook-and-line release, live traps or scuba observations, the authors said that the density of fish was so low in the study area that these methods would have been too time consuming. They also pointed out that they had obtained the necessary permits from the park authorities to do their work.

Was that enough? There are numerous studies showing that protecting marine areas from fishing leads to increases in fish abundance, size and age; so the work had limited novelty and had no unexpected findings. Thus the value of the research was limited.

In the end, we elected to reject the paper on the grounds that the work was unethical. In this particular case, non-lethal alternatives widely used by other researchers were available, although they would have been more expensive and time consuming to use. We have faced this type of decision on other papers, too, and have sometimes accepted them for publication because the impacts to wildlife were well justified; other times we rejected them because the value gained did not warrant the killing or harming of wildlife.

On many occasions, authors have been surprised that we, as journal editors, might question their methods and ethics. This surprise and the frequency of ethics concerns in papers led us to review existing standards for ethics in fieldwork. Most ethics standards relating to conservation research concern professional conduct and treatment of live animals during laboratory research. Some cases extend to treatment of live animals in the field, notably mammals and birds — but rarely invertebrates and plants.

We (all three of us) feel these standards are inadequate. They treat species unevenly and frequently do not adequately consider impacts on non-target species or ecosystems. Current standards often fail to give good guidance for ambiguous situations like the ethics of invasive species control, work with hunters and game species, and the role of public perception. The failings of these standards are magnified by a general lack of education and dialogue on these topics — research ethics courses are not required for most conservation degree programs, nor are ethics usually featured at conferences and in journals.

We argue that researchers must set a higher standard of respect for nature than may occur in other human activities (e.g. hunting, fishing, farming). We must improve regulations, policies and behavior and must encourage more education and dialogue on ethics in fieldwork. We must adapt to benefit from new technologies that enable far less intrusive methods of observation and sampling (e.g., camera traps, drones, environmental DNA).

Further, scientists must consider methods that reduce the impact of their research on ecosystems, such as minimizing trampling down vegetation and compacting the soil while carrying out fieldwork. In general, conservation biologists, ecologists, marine biologists, foresters and other scientists should set the highest standards for carrying out fieldwork, especially when working within protected areas and with threatened species. Merely filling in the needed paperwork and getting official approval is not enough.

We thus proposed 10 considerations for respectful conduct during biological field sampling (Box 1).

10 considerations for respectful conduct during biological field sampling


  1. Justify any potential adverse impacts of the research in terms of advancing scientific understanding.
  2. Comply with the spirit of institutional and national regulations regarding research and responsible care and use of animals, collecting samples and specimens, and working in protected areas.
  3. Apply the precautionary principle in assessing potential impact of the research on species and their habitats. This includes inadvertent transport of pests, pathogens and introduced species.


  1. Avoid killing animals and plants, especially species of conservation concern and species in protected areas.
  2. Minimise disturbance to wildlife and habitats. Ensure that accidentally captured animals will be carefully and immediately released alive.
  3. Minimise stress to animals that are sampled or handled.


  1. Remove research equipment and materials from study sites.
  2. Maximise future benefits of research by archiving samples for future research and educational use.
  3. Promptly report information that responsible authorities should know, such as, pollution, and rare and invasive species observations.
  4. Publish findings and data in publicly accessible permanent archives for use in future research, education and management. And whenever possible, inform the local community about the results through popular articles and public talks.

This checklist was part the following article in Biological Conservation. Elsevier has made this article freely available until March 5, 2017:

The opinions in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the funding agencies or the Department of Interior or the US Government.


Written by

Mark J. Costello, PhD

Written by

Mark J. Costello, PhD

Dr. Mark Costello, Associate Professor of Marine Ecology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, teaches and conducts research on biodiversity, especially in marine ecosystems, including ecological applications in conservation such as Marine Reserves, and invasive species. He has been a leader in the establishment of world biodiversity databases, including the World Register of Marine Species, Ocean Biogeographic Information system, and Global Biodiversity Information Facility. He has been Editor for marine and freshwater papers in Biological Conservation for six years, supervised over 50 graduate students and published over 140 papers.
Written by

Abraham J. Miller-Rushing, PhD

Written by

Abraham J. Miller-Rushing, PhD

Dr. Abraham Miller-Rushing is Science Coordinator for Acadia National Park in Maine, where he supervises a program that connects science, education and management. His research focuses on long-term and rapid changes in ecological communities, and how to mitigate and adapt to these changes.

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