A historic global partnership may be our best hope for saving the ocean
By Debbie Lawes
The Ocean Frontier Institute (OFI) is poised to become one of the world’s leading research efforts to understand the complex changes happening in the most vulnerable ocean regions, and find solutions to ensure their safe and sustainable development for future generations.
Nearly a quarter of a billion dollars went into creating the OFI—an unprecedented investment and collaboration that creates and builds upon a critical mass of talent and infrastructure in ocean research. The OFI is built on world-class Canadian expertise at Dalhousie University, Memorial University and the University of Prince Edward Island, working in partnership with three provinces, three federal departments, the Royal Canadian Navy, the National Film Board of Canada, 19 industry partners and eight international collaborators, including four of the top five global ocean institutes.
Dalhousie president Dr. Richard Florizone described OFI as “a new global partnership that brings together the best of this region with the best of the world.”
The very survival of humanity—the air we breathe, the food we eat—depends on a vibrant and healthy ocean… (The Ocean Frontier Institute) is a new international partnership that brings together the
best of this region with the best of the world.”
Dr. Richard Florizone, President, Dalhousie University (Dec. 14, 2016 speech to Halifax Chamber of Commerce)
“These partnerships allow us to undertake research at a scale that has never been realized before. The issues of the ocean are too big for any one university to tackle on their own. In fact, they’re too big for one country to tackle on its own,” he told a gathering of business leaders in December.
The challenges also cut across multiple scientific fields. The OFI’s interdisciplinary approach allows ocean-focused natural scientists, as well as experts in data science, governance, law, social sciences and other fields to take a coordinated and holistic approach to issues like climate change, global food production and access to the Arctic.
“This is different from most science projects in that our goal is to produce outputs that have direct and measurable impact on society. We can achieve that through a new invention, or patent, for example or by providing useful advice that can guide policy. It’s trying to pull together the basic science with applied science towards the betterment of human existence,” says Dr. Paul Snelgrove, OFI’s associate scientific director and a biological oceanographer at Memorial University in Newfoundland.
Three of OFI’s priorities are sustainable fisheries and aquaculture; better understanding of ocean change; and delivering new ocean data and technology products to end users. This research is expected to improve prediction and mitigation of major storm impacts, help better manage the ocean’s living resources, improve aquaculture’s potential to meet global seafood demand, strengthen marine transportation policy and risk reduction, and transform how we monitor the ocean with new data capture and IT tools.
The main study area is the Northwest Atlantic Ocean and adjacent Canadian Arctic Gateway, a key player in global ocean circulation systems. It is also one of the few places on Earth where ocean changes are already happening first and happening fast, making it a hotspot for climate change and an epicenter of international scientific interest. “Ocean scientists see this as a sentinel area for trying to understand the pace, cause and
consequences of ocean change. This is where we’re starting and where we will focus for at least the next seven years,” says OFI CEO Dr. Wendy Watson-Wright, who previously led UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission.
The Labrador Sea, located between Canada and Greenland, has been described as a lung in the Earth system for its role in “breathing in” oxygen from the atmosphere and transporting it to the deep ocean, which is critical to the survival of ecosystems in the ocean. The area is also one of the largest ocean sinks for climate-warming carbon dioxide. However, freshwater flowing in from the melting of ice in the Arctic and Greenland is altering both of these processes.
“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has to come up with is climate projections, and a key piece of that projection is understanding how much carbon dioxide the ocean takes up and where it is transported,” says Snelgrove.
Growing the ocean economy
In addition to advancing scientific knowledge, the OFI hopes to drive economic growth in Atlantic Canada in sectors such as aquaculture, fisheries, shipbuilding and offshore energy sectors. Marine trade alone employs about 250,000 Canadians and injects more than $25 billion into Canada’s economy each year.
One of the first beneficiaries could be aquaculture, a sector under pressure to meet the growing global demand for seafood at a time of stagnation in wild fisheries. It’s also an industry ripe for innovation, particularly when it comes to environmental sustainability, food safety, traceability and productivity. For example, OFI researchers are looking at ways to diversify food sources for fish, primarily farmed Atlantic
salmon, “because there’s concern now that we’re basically harvesting fish to feed fish,” says Snelgrove.
“The low hanging fruit (for technological innovation) is aquaculture,” he notes. “If we can
expand that industry and make it more efficient and effective, that means jobs—often jobs in rural areas that don’t always have other forms of employment.”
As oil exploration, fishing and shipping activities increase in the harsh waters of the North Atlantic, marine safety is another priority. “If we can improve those sorts of challenges then we can utilize the North Atlantic more effectively, reduce the number of incidents we see and increase the operating conditions under which we can undertake economically beneficial activities,” adds Snelgrove.
The OFI will also work with its academic and industry partners to commercialize new
technologies. For example, sensors and robots designed for ocean monitoring could be adapted for inspecting or monitoring aquaculture cages, underwater fibre optic cables or oil rigs.
OFI will support the growth of ocean start-ups and established companies through its collaboration with the OceansAdvance marine tech cluster in St. John’s NL, and the new Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship (COVE) incubator led by the Nova Scotia Community College in collaboration with Dalhousie. COVE, which received $19.7 million in federal and provincial funding last year, brings together global leaders in ocean science with start-ups, R&D-intensive companies, industry and Nova Scotia postsecondary institutions to create a cluster of marine innovation and commercialization. COVE is set to open in 2018 on a retired Coast Guard site in
Dartmouth, across the harbour from OFI in Halifax.
“OFI also provides marketing and business development support for Canadian industry. For example, (OFI Scientific Director) Dr. Marlon Lewis recently travelled to New England with the premier of Nova Scotia for this purpose,” says Watson-Wright. “And international organizations are starting to take notice of OFI. The chair of the OFI Executive Council, Martha Crago, and I recently were invited to an OECD workshop in Paris on fostering the ocean economy where we spoke about how Canada and the OFI are leading on these issues.”
Education and training are another priority. Watson-Wright says she’s particularly excited about the Ocean School program, one of several training opportunities that will be offered through the OFI.
“It’s an educational and engagement initiative for youth in Grades 6-9, led by Dalhousie biology professor Dr. Boris Worm, in collaboration with the National Film Board of Canada. The goal is to encourage more young people to become involved in science, using ocean science to attract them, and to improve ocean literacy” she says.
Watson-Wright wants to see the program offered nationally and internationally, adding that it has already attracted interest from France and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission.
Protecting the ocean emerged as a national priorityin Canada last November with the launch of the $1.5-billion Oceans Protection Plan. The five-year initiative aims to create a marine safety system that improves responsible shipping, restores marine ecosystems and invests in oil spill cleanup research.
Likewise, Europe has adopted the “Blue Growth” strategy to create sustainable economic growth and employment in the marine and maritime economy. In Europe, the “blue” economy represents roughly 5.4 million jobs and a gross added value of just under €500 billion a year. Globally, the ocean economy is projected to double in size by 2030, according to a 2016 OECD study.
“The opportunity in the Blue Economy ishuge for Canada,” Florizone told the Halifax
business group. “The ocean economy represents about 5% of global GDP and that’s forecast to double in the next 15 years. But in Canada it’s only about 2% of our GDP so the opportunity is there. OFI creates the research and the partnerships for us to advance it for this region.”