Making the case: marine biology, law and human health

In this blog, Thomas Appleby discusses his recent co-authored paper, The marine biology of law and human health, which features in the Oceans and Human Health special issue of the Journal of the Marine Biological Association. This blogpost first appeared on the Cambridge Journals Blog and is re-published here with kind permission.


We have now entered the Anthropocene period. You only need to look out of a window (particularly if you are in Western Europe) to see a landscape completely altered by the effects of mankind. Yet when we look at biology, particularly marine biology, we tend to see it in the abstract, as if humans were in some way removed from the natural order of things. But a moment’s reflection, on the havoc caused by overfishing or the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on ocean acidification, demonstrates that, though human impact in the marine environment is transient, it is also profound.

We are, therefore, as much a marine species in our environmental interaction, as a terrestrial one. But unlike any other species, human beings have written rules which (to some extent at least) regulate their behaviour. A legal analysis is a unique opportunity to investigate the human/ocean relationship. This paper looks at how human health is intertwined with the health of the oceans using three case studies:

  • Biomedical research
  • Marine litter
  • Human well-being

From the development of potential pharmaceuticals, to marine litter, to human well-being from the oceans, all of these can be decoded from the sets of laws which govern human behaviour. For instance, we know that, until manufacturers have to take into consideration at the design phase the impact of plastic pollution on the ocean, there will be no competitive incentive for them to do so. Yet humans are a fundamentally social species, and it is part of the core function of the law to regulate such anti-social activities. So there is hope and perhaps a route-map of accountability for such wanton behaviour through legislative processes.

It is this interaction between law, science, social science and medicine which makes the study of oceans and human health – a fundamentally interdisciplinary study – such a worthwhile undertaking. We have come an incredibly long way in developing our subject areas, but knowledge sharing between the academic disciplines has still a long way to go. It is only through such collaboration that we will normalise human behaviour and properly secure mankind’s future in the ecosystem; an ecosystem which functioned perfectly well without mankind in the past and would doubtless do so again.