Ocean Frontier 2022: “Addressing pressing issues from the ocean-climate nexus”

By: Kayla Hamelin

BACKGROUND

From May 15-19, ocean enthusiasts from around Atlantic Canada and around the world gathered in Halifax / K’jipuktuk for the Ocean Frontier Institute (OFI) 2022 conference (link: https://www.ofi.ca/event/ocean-frontier-2022). OFI brought together leaders from a wide variety of research, industry, policy, philanthropy, and advocacy backgrounds to discuss some of the most pressing issues facing the ocean today. Climate was an overarching theme, with each of the 3 days of the meeting centering on a key topic: 1) achieving net zero, 2) developing sustainable food from the ocean, and 3) protecting ocean biodiversity. As a researcher working in fisheries, I do not usually identify as a climate scientist, but I think it is becoming clear that if you are studying any social or natural system right now, you are by necessity studying the effects of climate change.

DAY 1

Net-zero refers to the idea that we must work toward having zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions entering the atmosphere in order to curb the effects of climate change, and this can be done through either emission reductions, GHG removal, or a combination of both (i.e., GHG in – GHG out = 0). It was pointed out by multiple speakers that when we set such targets, we must not “get caught in the net” – i.e., if we achieve net zero, we can’t stop there, as further reductions will still be required to remove excess greenhouse gases to safe levels. A great deal of the day’s discussion centred on the ‘GHG removal’ side of the net zero equation, with multiple sessions focused on possible mechanisms for carbon dioxide removal, particularly the ocean’s capacity to absorb and sequester carbon.

Most mainstream discourse around climate change prevention and mitigation seems to focus on emission reductions, so considering human-enhanced carbon dioxide removal as a key piece of the puzzle was a shift in perspective for me. I remember writing a paper as an undergraduate student in oceanography more than a decade ago in which I had to propose geoengineering solutions to mitigate hypothetical environmental challenges, but at the time it felt like writing science fiction! Evidently, we are approaching a point at which all options are on the table in our attempt to maintain a climate that promotes a healthy biosphere and emission reductions may not get us where we need to be quickly enough. However, an important question was posed about whether we are trying to solve the climate crisis the same way it started – human modification of our environment with difficult-to-predict consequences. Indeed, the topic of social licence was raised repeatedly throughout the day, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the mid-day session on “People and the Ocean” could have been better integrated into some of the other discussions, to allow for more direct connections between the socioeconomic/cultural dimensions and Indigenous perspectives of ocean issues and possible solutions to the challenges we face. In any case, the significance of the ocean has been overlooked in climate discussions and building capacity to better understand the ocean’s potential role will be essential.

DAY 2

Next, we dived into the topic of developing sustainable food from the ocean, with an emphasis on the role of aquaculture. While aquatic foods offer sources of protein and many other nutrients with relatively low associated GHG emissions, challenges remain when it comes to optimizing yields, animal welfare, and distribution and access for food-insecure communities. The key themes of innovation and interconnectedness emerged as leaders in research, industry, and policy discussed the future potential of ‘blue foods’.

Later in the afternoon, graduate students and post-doctoral fellows had the opportunity to showcase their ocean research in a poster session. The 3-hour session gave ample time for delegates to browse the presentation boards and speak with early-career researchers. Ranging from topics in oceanography to information science, posters showcased a diverse range of projects from many disciplines. As a poster presenter, I really appreciated the rich discussions I had during interactions with folks from a wide range of academic, policy, and industry backgrounds. I certainly left with new insights and ideas, and a renewed sense of motivation as I could clearly see how my work fits into a larger ocean research and management picture. However, it would have perhaps been helpful to have the posters available at other times during the conference, or split into multiple sessions, to allow student researchers a break from being in ‘presenter mode’ and time to browse, learn from, and discuss each other’s work as well.

DAY 3

The final day focused on ocean biodiversity, a topic that is most closely aligned with my own research and work background. As an academic researcher, it was fascinating to hear from groups such as the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative, the X-Prize, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. These high-level organizations working in banking, philanthropy, and international governance are engaging with biodiversity conservation in different ways and on different scales than many of the scientists who are engaging with this topic. However, what we all have in common is the desire to engage, take action, and show we can make a difference in preserving the ocean biosphere. After all, it was pointed out that stabilizing our climate will be meaningless if biodiversity is degraded to the point that the ecosystem services (including cultural/spiritual aspects) it provides are no longer available to us. We were challenged to “save healthy oceans, so they can save us.”

Perhaps most relevant to CaNOE members, there was also an excellent (bilingual!) presentation by Dr. Genevieve Therriault, an education professor from Université de Québec à Rimouski. Dr. Therriault discussed the importance of building environmental literacy among students in light of the urgent climate crisis and rising rates of eco-anxiety/depression among young people. Current challenges to this goal include the lack of prioritization, definitions and scope, and monitoring or accountability mechanisms to measure positive progress in schools. Competencies relevant to eco-literacy are strategic, self-aware, anticipatory, collaborative, normative, and critical, among many others – some of which are transferable among other school subjects, while others may be unique or not currently addressed adequately in formal education. She made it clear that in order to fight climate anxiety and apathy, it is necessary to first build agency in order to inspire hope and initiate action.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Overall, I really appreciated the interdisciplinary and multi-sector dynamics of Ocean Frontier 2022. The roles and responsibilities of different sectors to contribute to ocean management and climate solutions became clear, based on the resources, capacities, and expertise each has to offer.

In reflecting upon the conference format, I appreciated that there were no concurrent sessions – the group of delegates attended all presentations together and it was not necessary to choose and prioritize among different speakers or topics of interest. Also, most sessions were conducted in panel format as opposed to lecture-style academic conference presentations. However, the greatest strength of panels is the opportunity for discussion, and sometimes the panelists’ introductory presentations ran a bit long, leaving little time for engagement. Using this format in the future, it might work best if each panelist gave only a ‘speed-talk’ (~5-minute) introduction before diving into questions and commentary. It was also notable that, despite many references to the need for new ideas, innovation, and forward-thinking perspectives, early-career ocean professionals were generally not present on the panels. I believe this was a missed opportunity, as moving past an information-deficit approach to mutual knowledge exchange requires that folks of all backgrounds (including both senior and early-career professionals) be able to share ideas and insights. Furthermore, it was apparent to me that the community of early-career professionals was much more diverse in terms of factors such as gender and cultural backgrounds relative to the senior professionals, so giving voice to younger delegates would have likely resulted in giving voice to a more diverse group of people overall.

I generally enjoyed the virtual platform used to engage with the audience during Q&A or discussion periods. A web link was provided through which attendees could submit questions and other members of the audience could ‘upvote’ questions of particular interest. I noticed that questions were not always addressed by the panel based on these votes, which perhaps defeated the purpose of allowing the audience to select topics of interest and priority. It was also pointed out to me later that answering questions without the context of who asked the question might have made it more difficult for the panelists to respond fully and follow-up afterwards. However, overall I found it a very introvert-friendly way to gather comments from the relatively large crowd.

For many of us, this was the first in-person conference attended since ‘the before times’ (pre-COVID-19 pandemic). Managing long periods of social interaction following years of lockdowns required pacing for those of us still adjusting to life ‘in person’, but at the same time, the meeting offered unprecedented opportunities to network and collaborate that were sorely missed during the previous years dominated by virtual events.

I was left thinking about many of the big questions we face and the possible solutions at our disposal: collective action, innovation, technocratic solutions, Two-Eyed Seeing, data/information/knowledge, policy tools, hope. Personally, I am working toward becoming a “T-shaped” researcher, as described to us by Dr. Rob Stephenson, whereby I have the depth of knowledge to be an expert in my field, but the breadth of knowledge to bridge gaps among fields and sectors. As he points out, perhaps our respective professional ‘silos’ are not a hindrance, but represent a set of honed skills that we can contribute to the multidisciplinary teams that will be necessary to solve the challenges we face, from the climate crisis to the social inequities that underpin many environmental issues. Ocean Frontier 2022 certainly brought many such professional teams together this month. Ultimately, I think many of us can agree that in setting targets for the state of our ocean, we do not want a future that is “only a little worse”, but rather a future that is better than the status quo. We will need to work together to get there, starting yesterday.


Kayla Hamelin is a marine researcher and educator based in Halifax. She has been involved in CaNOE for several years as a board member (2017-2019) and communications volunteer. Kayla is currently pursuing a PhD in fisheries science and management at Dalhousie University. She is a passionate advocate for community-led stewardship and interdisciplinary approaches to environmental problem-solving.