Helgoländer Meeresuntersuchungen

, Volume 49, Issue 1–4, pp 647–662 | Cite as

The implications of the precautionary principle for biological monitoring

  • M. MacGarvin
Marine Ecology: Political, Economic and Environmental Implications


Marine biological monitoring programmes frequently attempt to determine “safe” levels of contamination, based on assumptions about the assimilative capacity of the environment. This paper argues that such assumptions lack scientific rigour, and do not form the basis upon which a precautionary policy can be built. It notes the problems associated with assessing toxicological effects, but centres its attention on the crucial (yet far less discussed) weaknesses in theoretical ecology that make it extremely unlikely that biological monitoring can determine safe levels of contamination that leave ecosystems unaffected. It is argued that many marine biologists, if pressed, would concede these shortcomings but believe that, in the face of the technical difficulties and high costs of pollution prevention, we have no choice but to use such methods. This paper argues, with examples, that pollution prevention, often with considerable economic savings, is becoming a reality for even the most problematic substances. The difficulty is that the development of “clean production” methods lie outside the sphere of interest of those carrying out monitoring, so that measures that attempt to determine safe levels of contamination continue to be advocated. This gulf needs to be bridged so that the continuation of monitoring programmes that are part of dilute and disperse policies become regarded as inappropriate, indeed unethical. The paper concludes that this does not mean the end of marine monitoring. Instead, reliable methods for assessing physical levels of contamination will be required to determine whether the reduction targets set—as part of the introduction of clean production—are being met. Formidable difficulties will remain, requiring a precautious approach. Nevertheless, monitoring will no longer carry the burden of attempting to demonstrate that a particular level of environmental contamination is safe, which is currently destroying its scientific credibility.


Monitoring Programme Technical Difficulty Environmental Contamination Safe Level Precautionary Principle 
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Copyright information

© Biologische Anstalt Helgiland 1995

Authors and Affiliations

  • M. MacGarvin
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Consultant to Greenpeace InternationalAmsterdamThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Dpt. of ZoologyUniversity of Aberdeen, Culterty Field StationNewburgh, EllonUK

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