The Series: Blog

Sarika Cullis-Suzuki

Sarika shares a Canadian perspective on the global issues facing the ocean.

The One Ocean Blog discusses current issues facing our global ocean, and strives to inject a sense of urgency to all Canadians. With the longest coastline in the world, Canada is an ocean nation. The choices we make around the country, both inland and on the coast, urban and rural, can make a difference to the health of the ocean.

What You Can Do to Help

It's December, and after a year of blogging, I wanted to end my One Ocean blog posts with something a little uplifting. First, here are a few of my favourite links on fish and ocean stuff. They remind me why I fell in love with all this in the first place.

The 'parasite-that-poses-as-a-fish's-tongue' (after eating its host's original tongue!) has to be the best horror story never to become a movie. I got stuck on this website for hours. The rest of the creatures on this website are equally as fascinating (other must-sees are the oarfish and the blobfish). The BBC does a fabulous/hilarious reinactment of a man coming across a candiru fish in a river; you won't predict the graphic end result (ouch!). Some other extraordinary marine creatures include the crazy barreleye and the piglet squid (my current screensaver). But my favourite fish of all time is the lumpsucker (a name that doesn't do the adorable fish justice).

I also wanted to end with a few simple actions I think all Canadians can do for the oceans.

On your plate:
This sounds really obvious but think about where your food comes from. This means fish too. Sadly, a lot of our fish is mislabeled, renamed and downright confusing (hooray for Omega 3s! But watch out for mercury), making it even harder for consumers to know what to eat (ask your waiter where your fish comes from and he'll likely have to ask the chef... who may or may not know... Good luck getting an answer on how the fish was caught- hook and line? Trawl? Troll? Goblin??). But there are some really obvious fish to steer clear from. Avoid farmed salmon. Avoid top predator fish, as most are in decline (tuna, billfish, sharks, cod). Go for freshwater, vegetarian fed fish. And go for smaller fish lower down on the food chain (like sardine and anchovies). Beyond fish, calamari can be good, too. If you love seafood, other sealife even lower on the trophic chain can be just as tasty, such as farmed oysters and mussels, clams and even certain seaweeds!

For your brain:
Read Pauly et al. in Nature (2002)
Read Worm et al. in Science (2006)
Read Pauly in The New Republic (2009)
• Watch 'The End of the Line'
• Watch 'Sharkwater'
• Watch an episode of 'Whale Wars'
• Read 'An Unnatural History of the Sea' by Callum Roberts

... and for your eyes:
David Gallo on TED talks
Sylvia Earle on The Colbert Report
• The entire BBC Blue Planet series

For your self:
• Spend time outside and if you can, in the ocean. If a beach is accessible, take your friends and kids for a visit!! (When I was TA-ing a first year Biology class a couple years ago at the University of British Columbia, I was horrified to find out that in a class of 30, only three students had been to the beach before! Our University practically sits on a beach. If our kids don't know our oceans, why would they care about their health?)
• Speak to your elders: they will tell you stories about what the oceans were like when they were young. They will remind you of the change that has taken place within their lifetime. With each generation gone, that personal experience is also lost, and we who are left simply accept those changes as being 'the norm'; this is called 'shifting baselines.'

On behalf of your country:
• Write to your government (did you know a few years ago Harper voted against a moratorium on high seas bottom-trawling? And we don't even have a high seas bottom-trawl fleet! (See Oceana's trailer on the impacts of bottom trawling on the sea floor). Gail Shea is the current Minister of Fisheries and Oceans ( (Just as a comparison, looking South... In 2009, Obama elected Dr. Jane Lubchenco to the position of Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, NOAA, in the USA. Dr. Lubchenco- besides being the first woman ever to fulfill this position- has a PhD from Harvard in Ecology and is one of the ocean's fiercest advocates. Perhaps something Canada could learn from..?)
• Learn what projects your municipal leaders are involved in as well as local ocean-focused NGOs, and see if you can get involved, or offer your ideas.
• When you vote in the next election, make sure you know the marine platforms of those running for office! This might just sway your vote...

It's been really interesting writing for One Ocean, and I will continue to write, in some capacity, on ocean and environmental issues over the next few years (at least!). Thanks for reading the One Ocean blog. I hope you stay informed.

Is Ocean Conservation Worth It?

As this One Ocean blog nears its end (ok, that sounds dramatic, I just mean its final post!), I am thinking about the bigger picture and what the future holds for oceans. I just finished listening to a podcast by Jared Diamond, in which he gives a lecture on his book Collapse and his visions for the future. What most resonated with me was when Diamond (a self-dubbed "cautious optimist"), talks about today's need for a societal "reappraisal", a collective reevaluation of what is important. As things change, so must we in response; or as Obama put it in his inaugural speech: "the world has changed, and we must change with it." And when it comes to global ocean health, this couldn't be any more true.

For example, in the past, when we thought the ocean's resources were limitless, we treated them as such. Today, we know better... but it's hard to kill old habits. It is estimated that currently, about ¼ of global marine fisheries landings are bycatch. One third of the fish we catch is ground up into fish oil and fishmeal, and is fed to animals like chickens and pigs. Meanwhile, we are nearing 7 billion people on this planet, a huge proportion of which depend on fish for their primary source of protein. This is a very different world than it was even fifty years ago. As our numbers grow and our technology advances, we need a global reevaluation of the situation.

Over dinner the other night someone asked me: "What will happen if what you think and firmly believe... is wrong?" Yup. Could definitely be the case. So let's delve into what would happen, taking ocean conservation as an example: if we are wrong, and the oceans are not under threat... if their overall health is actually fine, then all the work that has gone into 'saving' them was for naught. So what would be the overall harm done, on a global scale, of our futile efforts? Compared to the ramifications of not doing anything about their potentially threatened status- or worse, perpetuating it- well, let's face it: the outcome would be miniscule.

Doug Tompkins, co-owner of Esprit and founder of The North Face, states this succinctly and powerfully in the documentary 180 Degrees South. This film follows Tompkins and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard on their formative trip to South America in the '60s. Now in their late sixties and early seventies, these outdoor adventure-loving friends and highly successful businessmen reflect on lives fully lived, and what is truly important. Through the years they ruminated on the course of the world and their footprints left behind. Gradually, Tompkins and his wife Kris began purchasing land in Chile and Argentina with their own fortune, with the ultimate dream of turning it into a national park. So far they have preserved 2.2 million acres of land. Of course, this took serious internal reflection from the Tompkins, and a good hard look at the cost versus benefits. In their minds, the benefits of these actions so heavily outweighed the potential negative repercussions of their non-actions, it was worth it.

Maybe this is what we need. A recognition of the global change that has taken place on Earth, and a reassessment of our place in it today, and our responsibilities to it. And, in particular, I have a feeling that when it comes to the sea, a cost-benefit analysis of ocean conservation would likely- just as the Tompkins concluded- prove to be absolutely worth it.

We don't have to lose much.


copyright 2009 Joel Pett. posted with permission. all rights reserved

Across the Pond

I just moved to York, England, to start a degree with Callum Roberts, a marine conservationist most recognized for his work on Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). I've joined as part of the Environment Department: unlike many traditional science graduate programs, this Department includes many disciplines under one umbrella unit. For example, we have professors researching air, water, and land, all (get this) under the same roof; it sounds basic, but it's still surprisingly uncommon in the sciences. It seems cross-disciplinarity no longer refers to a subject that crosses disciplines, but rather a way of understanding a subject through many different lenses.

Very cool.

One of the first things you notice here in England (or I guess, something I notice!) is the fish they eat. Unsurprisingly, they are notably different than back home. Unlike Vancouver, where wild salmon, sablefish and halibut seem to dominate menus, here, along with haddock and pollock, mackerel seems to be very common, and surimi (fake crab or lobster made out of mashed up random fish) is EVERYWHERE. The waters surrounding the UK are some of the world's most overexploited and damaged (1) - I wasn't surprised to see that the English are now eating lower down on the foodchain.

In a culture where fish and chips are a tradition, I wonder how many times the fish species for this signature dish has changed through the years. The other day I ordered fish and chips while in Whitby, a beautiful seaside town reminiscent of ancient times; tellingly, the sign in the fish shop read: 'Out of cod; fish guaranteed to be local.'

I'm interested to understand what people feel and know about the ocean and conservation issues in this country. In theory, you'd think they would be more advanced in these realms, given their history (i.e., intensive fishing that began in the 11th century! (2)). But from what I've heard so far, the public is surprisingly unaware, and unconcerned. How does this compare with Canada and Canadians? I have a lot yet to learn, and I'm looking forward to it!

(1) For more information on this map, see

(2) Read Callum Roberts' 'An unnatural history of the sea' for a full description of the history of fishing, how our relationship with the sea has changed, and where we should be headed in ocean management. A real must-read for everyone.

The Sockeye Mystery: Unsolved

Let's admit it: we have no idea why the Fraser River sockeye salmon are so plentiful this year.

Remember last year? How the sockeye came in at less than 10% of their predicted run? What a difference one year can make, both to the sockeye... and to our memories.

Last year we thought we'd gotten people's attention. We thought we'd finally had a local and symbolic fish species that represented the direction many of the world's commercial fish stocks are headed (i.e., down the tubes). Fraser River sockeye numbers in BC were crashing. Fights were breaking out on the water. The Marine Stewardship Council was being hammered. Even Harper got all a twitter, and called a federal inquiry into the disappearance of sockeye.

People's bellies rumbled and hands got sweaty as the thought of tough times without sockeye clouded the minds of British Columbians across the province.

It appeared, at that time, that we gave a carp about an invaluable species on our coast.

So then what happened?

Ask the experts, and they'll likely give you different answers, depending on their backgrounds (also be warned of confusing opinions). So are they all wrong? Well, they're probably all a bit right, as it's likely a combination of many variables that have caused the 2010 sockeye surge.

A friend of mine asked me the other day at a dinner party why the sockeye run was so good this year following last year's miserable returns. I told him the most honest answer I knew: I didn't know.

Predictably, my friend was not satisfied with this answer. In fact, my ignorance kind of infuriated him: "I've asked every one I know, and no one can tell me!" he began, and, getting more and more worked up, finally bellowed across the room: "Three years on a degree in fisheries science and you still can't give me a simple answer??"


But true.

Or maybe a better word would be 'humbling'.

And true.

As cringing as that moment was, my friend had managed to get at the heart of the problem with fisheries science, and hence, management: we just don't know... a lot. There is so much uncertainty and variability in this science, in stock assessments, in models, in predictions; listen to Dr. Daniel Pauly's take on this in an interview with CBC.

Thanks to the Fraser River sockeye for giving us a dose of some much needed humility, and reminding us just how much we don't know.

Sea Creatures in Captivity?

My sister emailed me the other day, asking if it was ethical or not for her to volunteer at our local aquarium.

Hmm. That's a tough one.

A few years ago, I underwent training at the Vancouver Aquarium to do the same thing, volunteer- I was especially interested in diving in the shark tank. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately..?), after the long training period, I didn't end up volunteering (the MSc took over), so never had to face this dilemma directly.

Reasons behind not supporting a large aquarium are obvious: certainly, keeping large mammals in captivity seems wrong, and many aquaria have stopped this outdated practice. In fact, the Vancouver Aquarium stopped keeping killer whales in captivity close to 10 years ago, and recently there was talk of them giving up all cetaceans. But I also cringe when I see octopi and fish in small tanks; we just don't know enough about these animals to say whether or not it's right to keep them behind glass.

Of course, on the flip side of the argument, the aquarium is a place where people can learn about, and fall in love with, ocean creatures. For some, it is the only time they will actually meet these animals. And what about endangered species, shouldn't they be kept somewhere, and shouldn't people be able to see them? And, perhaps the strongest argument of all: these people could then be inspired to become conservationists - ocean stewards, even! - after being exposed to aquaria.

So the question becomes: is sacrificing a few individuals at the expense of the greater population, ethical? Ah. The age-old question. In a public poll, The Guardian found that when it comes to polar bears, generally, people don't think so. This is something we've probably all pondered before, and is a real quandary in animal research1. (I've often found it ironic that even in conservation science, we often kill animals to gain insight into their species.)

My sister mentioned the description of dolphins in captivity and the depraved aquaria trade in the academy award winning documentary film, The Cove, as reasons for her hesitations regarding volunteering at the Aquarium. I think most people acknowledge that there is something disturbing about both the method of killing in the dolphin cull, and the purpose. But beyond this, there is the argument that these are intelligent, sentient beings that experience stress and pain and fear, and it is thus wrong for us to torture them so. While the intelligence of larger, perhaps more magnetic animals have been of interest to researchers, and thus relatively studied (such as cetaceans, and even mollusks such as octopi), fish intelligence, for one, has historically been a subject much less explored or appreciated. However, studies are emerging that challenge old notions and previously held beliefs about fish ... and even other puzzling creatures, like jellyfish.

Our societal views on animals in captivity- including in aquaria- have undergone real transformation; and are only continuing to do so. Practices that used to be tolerated, are no longer. We forget that, for example,  we've gone from knowing nothing about killer whales and thus fearing them, to caging them and making them star attractions at aquaria, to wanting to set them free again... in the span of less than 50 years.

Some take it further and say that dolphins fit our definition of what is human; in other words, dolphins are human, philosophically speaking. Hmm. Well, regardless, human or something else, I have the feeling we are entering a really interesting discussion. And the more we learn about all these animals, including the fish and the jellies, the more I think we'll see changes in how we view and treat them.

In the meantime, I wonder what my sister will decide.

More Tragedy in the Gulf

Recently, I was contracted to do some work on fish bycatch in the Gulf of Mexico. I started the project at the beginning of April this year, and happened to go down to New Orleans to conduct interviews with fishermen the day the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, on April 20th, 2010.

 Needless to say, after April 20th, suddenly bycatch didn't seem so important; my study was, rightly so, cut short.

One of the fishermen I did happen to interview before my research was brought to a halt was Allen Kruse; Allen killed himself less than two months after our interview.

Presumably, he took his life because of the devastating effects of the oil spill. Allen's story evoked in me the sense of absolute despair people in the Gulf - particularly those who depend directly on the Gulf ocean for their livelihoods and health - are experiencing. We, i.e., the rest of the world outside of the Gulf, cannot fully comprehend the scale of their loss or anguish, or how those affected, like Allen, would go to any extreme to escape it.

I wrote about Allen and my reaction to the Gulf event in an article I recently published in The Tyee. In the article I also point out what the Gulf tragedy means for us in British Columbia, as the threat of Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway Project looms near. You can read my article here.

The High Seas: A Sorry State

Last month, I gave a talk at the United Nations headquarters in New York. There, at the UN Fish Stocks Review Conference, I presented the results of my recently published MSc research (1). This research examined the world's 18 regional fisheries management organizations, or RFMOs (ICCAT- mentioned in my previous post- is an example of an RFMO).

As stated in the 1995 Fish Stocks Agreement (2), RFMOs are in charge of managing and conserving fish in the high seas (i.e., in areas beyond national jurisdiction). My research addressed the question: are RFMOs effective? What I found was, as a whole: they are not.

Indeed, in the first part of the assessment (which looked at RFMO effectiveness 'on paper', as determined by their written documents), they scored an average of 57%; in the second part of the assessment (which looked at RFMO effectiveness 'on the ground', as determined by the actual state of the stocks they manage), they scored an average of 49%. Further, 67% of all stocks assessed and under RFMO management were either overfished or depleted.

Well first of all, it's astounding the impact we've had in such little time: fishing on the high seas only really started about 60 years ago. It shows that ocean management in areas beyond national jurisdiction aren't faring that much better than those within! And it shows that high seas stocks of great importance ecologically (and economically, for that matter)- top oceanic predators such as tuna, dolphin fish, toothfish, billfish, sharks, whales- are in danger. We now know that, contrary to what we've always been taught, non-coastal areas of ocean are not like deserts, they are not devoid of life, and that indeed a huge fraction of the ocean's biomass is actually found in the high seas. All in all, the high seas are a pretty integral ecosystem.

Which is why it's particularly upsetting to see that these areas are suffering under poor management.

Alas. The failure of high seas management is not a unique story. One glance at the history of coastal fishing would reveal a bleak trend: as a whole, we have not been successful at ocean management within national jurisdiction either (something I touched on in an earlier post. Ahem. Canada.) But this is all the more reason for RFMOs to become leaders in ocean conservation and management, and step up to the challenge and responsibility they have been tasked.

The consequence of inaction is great. The high seas are still the most pristine areas of ocean left (3) - here lies a moment of opportunity for great change. RFMOs must take the lead. I sure hope I got that message across at the conference! It's high time for high seas.

(1) See Cullis-Suzuki and Pauly, 2010.
(2) Also known in its concise form as The Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks'
(3) When it comes to anthropogenic forces, and according to Halpern et al., 2008.

Disaster in the Gulf: Lesson for Canada

April 22, 2010. The day the oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico was the day I left New Orleans. I was doing research on reef fish bycatch in the Gulf, and I was there conducting interviews with fishermen. But after the oil explosion, suddenly bycatch didn't seem so important. The question quickly became: will there be any fish left to discard?

So far, fishing has only been affected in a small fraction of the Gulf. But the explosion happened on Earth Day, and now, over two weeks since the event, and at a rate of 5000 barrels a day, we still can't seem to find a real solution to stop the oily flow.

What will be the long-term repercussions of this?

While some argue that the number of accidents of this scale is minute when compared to the total number of oil rigs out there, this begs the question: isn't one accident enough? And, if we really do take the Precautionary Principle (aka, common sense) seriously, then we just might reconsider such an energy-extraction set-up (and at the very least, have a plan in place for when things break down).

In an area already so ravaged by anthropogenic forces. And yet we are reminded how much we still stand to lose.

Here, on the coast of British Columbia, we also stand to lose a great deal: Enbridge is building a pipeline that will take crude oil from the Alberta tar sands and pump it west to the coastal village of Kitimat, where tankers would be waiting to transport the oil down through the narrow arm away from Kitimat, out into the Pacific, and over to China. Take one look at a BC map and you'll see why this is a bad idea.


Map courtesy of Living Oceans Society

If a tanker hits the BC coast- a very real possibility: again, note the route (see map)- the repercussions would be so thoroughly devastating, that, in the words of wildlife photographer and writer Ian McAllister, "all we've been fighting for will be for naught," referring to all the battles waged over the years to conserve the wild coasts.

The Gulf of Mexico tragedy is still unfolding. The loss of human lives has already been felt. The final environmental consequences have yet to be fully comprehended. What's at stake is too large to be gambled; let us in Canada pay particular attention to the events down south. Let's not repeat history (1989 wasn't that long ago- don't we remember Exxon Valdez?), and instead learn from our costly mistakes, and prevent future ones.

One slip-up is enough. How many strikes will it take?

Canada: We Can Do Better on Ocean Issues

In North America we were celebrating the beginning of spring. In the middle east, Japanese and Canadian delegates were celebrating another occasion: the decision not to list Atlantic bluefin tuna in CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Yup, that's right: Monaco put forth the proposal; Canada shut it down.

And it all happened last month, at the 15th meeting of the conference of the parties (CoP15) held in Doha, Qatar. With this decision to close the door on Monaco's proposal, we are also closing the door on allowing Atlantic bluefin tuna stocks to recover. Right now these fish (specifically, two stocks: the west Atlantic and the east Atlantic) are at all-time low levels: check out their current stock biomasses, as compared with past estimates:

 blogpic2.jpgblogpic1.jpg Historical biomass of two stocks of Atlantic bluefin tuna under ICCAT management. Dotted lines denote year of establishment of ICCAT, 1969. See Cullis-Suzuki and Pauly, in press.

This is terrible: when it comes to ocean management, I'm getting used to feeling embarrassed to be Canadian.

In so many other respects, we Canadians are progressive: in matters of race, sex, health care, education, free speech, we are leaders... but when it comes to the environment, we just aren't stepping up. We don't have an excuse NOT to be leaders on this front!

Now I'm just focusing on ocean issues here. Briefly, let's go over a few of Canada's more shameful marine moments in the last 20 years:

1992: Nobody, Canadian or not, forgets the great cod collapse off the eastern shores of Canada in the early '90s, a collapse so severe that, 20 years later, the stocks still haven't recovered.

2006: What about high seas bottom-trawling? Perhaps one of the most destructive fishing practices in history, Canada was all for it- and we don't even have a high seas bottom-trawl fleet! Thanks to us, these trawls are still legal and being used today.

2009: If you're from the west coast of Canada you'll know all about last year's Fraser River sockeye run... or should I say, 'lack of run'. Some stocks only came in at about 10% of predicted returns, making last year's harvest a complete disaster; Harper called for a judicial inquiry into the catastrophe.

2010: Now yet another humiliation for Canada: voting against listing Atlantic bluefin tuna in CITES.

We can do better than this! We depend on the oceans. And ironically, now they depend on us. As I mentioned in a previous post, Canada has less than 1% of our oceans protected.

Canada: let's become leaders in ocean management; let's step it up!

Cullis-Suzuki, S and Pauly, D. (In press). Failing the high seas: a global evaluation of regional fisheries management organizations. Marine Policy, doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2010.03.002.

ICCAT, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna, is one of the current 18 global regional fisheries management organizations. Their mandate is to manage and conserve tuna and other fish species, including Atlantic bluefin.

Get Back into the Sea!

Be prepared. This week's episode of One Ocean is another shocker: the oceans are stressed beyond belief, and we've accumulated enough evidence to point the finger straight back at ourselves; it's clear we've gotten the oceans into this mess. Get ready to feel something when you watch it.

This reminds me: right after the second episode of One Ocean aired, my sister called me. She was absolutely distraught. The show powerfully illustrated the painful reality of how we have taken so much from the sea and given ruin in return. She couldn't bear the guilt and sadness of the situation.

These were some of the feelings I became used to, sadly, when I started research in Fisheries Science in graduate school. I found it exceptionally hard to find the energy to continue to read about all these things, day after day.

Now I know I've said this before, that it's easy to get overwhelmed about the current grim state of the oceans. But you know what: it's also surprisingly easy to get re-inspired.

All you need to do is get back in the sea*. Honestly, that's all it takes.

I just got in from a day in the cold, Pacific surf off of northern BC. And I was reminded of what it's all about. 'The point', in my mind, is that we would like to be able to play in, eat from, and explore the oceans for as long as we're around. There's no denying the grave situation we're in, and that, with closer to 7 billion people on this planet, it's going to take some serious work.

Living in balance with the oceans is the ultimate goal, and the only sustainable one; we've got a lot to lose if we don't try to reach it. That point was battered into me today as I was tossed around in the waves, and, shaking my head, echoed in my ears as I tried to get the last drops of salt water from them. As I peeled away my wetsuit and the waves continued to crash onto the sand (as they do every day, sometimes large, sometimes small, but every day), I was then reminded why- beyond the air in our lungs, the food in our bellies, the climate around us, and all the other countless resources the ocean provides to us for free- why we further depend on the sea. And that is because it lifts us. Our world would be so much less interesting without it. Anyways. I hope we all have the chance to be reminded of this.

Our spirits and stamina will be renewed with this simple action!

*Obviously, getting back in the 'healthy' sea is ideal!