I was wrong about ocean conservation, here’s why you might be too

By: Sofia Goulart

Growing up, I believed that ocean conservation and literacy in Canada was for those that have developed a personal connection to marine spaces or those that lived in coastal areas.  I believed that the immense weight of the climate crisis and its marine related outcomes would fall on the shoulders of those who would immediately see an impact on their homes.  I’ve come to realize that spending my school year in Toronto, but my summer in the Azores was the reason for this way of thinking, which I now know could not be farther from the truth.  Let me explain…

View of the Toronto skyline

I was born and raised in Toronto, constantly surrounded by crowds, concrete, and condos.  While I lived near High Park, a beautiful greenspace that’s great for hiking and bird watching, I was still only about 6 subway stops from the downtown core. The best nature experiences were found outside the city, but to me, as a young marine biologist and no ocean in sight, this only meant that Toronto wasn’t the place I needed to be to achieve my goals and start my career in conservation.

The view from my Family’s home in Varadouro, Faial

While I spent most of the year in Toronto, my summers were spent visiting my family in a grouping of Portuguese islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean: The Azores. Having grown up in a city, being on the island of Faial for a month or two was such an exciting change. You were never more than a 15-minute drive from the ocean and the jagged volcanic coastline made for a wonderful habitat for hidden marine creatures. No matter where I went there was always something new to discover that is what prompted me to pursue a career in marine science. The ocean is ingrained in Azorean culture. Not only are the islands a hub for tourists and marine scientists looking to explore this unique environment but the locals have grown up with marine spaces as their backyards and have therefore developed personal experiences and connection to them. 

The Azores is so clearly an amazing place to start a career in marine science and the clear dichotomy between Toronto and the islands is what eventually allowed me to write Toronto off as a place to gain experience and participate in ocean conversation. I now know that Toronto and other similar places in Canada are actually connected to our oceans through a large network of rivers and streams that empty into ocean gateways. Keeping these blue spaces clean and accessible for local and migratory species is essential in supporting earth’s extensive ecological systems. Preserving an inland blue space is in fact part of the large encompassing effort to protect our oceans from harmful human impact. This simple shift in perspective allowed me to realize inland cities and islands actually have more in common than I once thought and that no matter where you live, you can actively make a difference in support of ocean conservation. 

The coast of Faial

This realization eventually set in motion a desire to show others that no matter where you live you can always participate in ocean conservation. In my fourth year of my undergrad, I learned the importance of three conservation components: local blue spaces, citizen science programs and community. Not only have they impacted the way I see and interpret conservation efforts on a global scale, but they have also allowed me to adjust how I see and make conservation efforts in my personal life. I soon realized that I could identify these components in both Toronto and the Azores, locations I once thought to be so different actually had similar conservation efforts:

  1. Keep it local

It is much easier to capture the attention of an audience when they have a personal connection to the subject matter. In the Azores, the ocean is never far so it is fairly easy to find a common marine related cause for locals to connect with. For example the islands are known for their sperm whales, which are residents of the islands. Many scientists on the islands operate whale watching tours and are able to engage in conservation activities such as data collection and education this way. The whales are ingrained in their culture, history and tourism and therefore conservation efforts aimed at protecting their livelihood are successful on the islands. While in Toronto, being over 900km away from the closest ocean, sperm whale conservation wouldn’t make as big a splash. However the Atlantic Salmon that run in the Humber River, is well loved, respected and close to home. Organizations such as the Lake Ontario Atlantic Salmon Restoration Program are working to restore salmon stocks in freshwater lakes and rivers nearby. 

  1. Get people actively involved

Whether you are in a big city or a tiny island, it is always important to include people in conservation work. This not only will foster a sense of community, see below, but will also allow individuals to develop a connection and personal experiences with the issue at hand. This will hopefully further encourage future conservation work and might even start conversations between family and friends. 

Grenadier Pond, High Park, Toronto
  1. Foster a sense of community

Community is built through shared experiences in a specific region. For example, many people swim in waterways near their homes, but what makes their particular waterways unique? In Faial, it might be the thrill of swimming away from Peixe-Porco (Triggerfish) that like to nip at you with their unusually large teeth. Whereas in Toronto it might be the exciting memory of swimming near shores, flipping over rocks in search of frogs and toads. The more specific the better! Allowing people to connect over a shared experience will foster a sense of pride for their home, making them that much more likely to protect it. Conservation issues will also seem less daunting when people feel they are supported by a community of people with the same goal in mind. 

There is no time left for the notion that only coastal communities can address the issue of our dying oceans. It is everyone’s responsibility, especially those that possess the privilege to make certain changes to their lifestyle, habits and behaviours. I encourage you to question your thoughts and beliefs about ocean conservation and actively search out ways of supporting your local blue spaces. I bet there are few in your backyard right now, waiting to be explored!


Sofia is a graduate of the BSc program at Dalhousie University with a major in Marine Biology and a certificate in Science Communication. Sofia is currently pursuing a MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London in the UK. Using her marine science background as a starting point, Sofia hopes to study the relationship society has with climate science and use this research to improve how organizations, scientists and government communicate with the public.  In her free time, she loves to cook, travel, go to the movies and spend time in nature when she can.