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From World Class to World Leading

Through his work, Dalhousie conservation biologist Boris Worm talks to many people whose lives connect to the ocean—researchers, fishers, naturalists, divers. And as of late, they’re all telling him the same story: 2016 has been a very unusual year.

“Totally bonkers” is how Dr. Worm actually describes it. “The sea turtles arrived very late and in small numbers. There’s hardly any blue sharks there. Water temperatures are up and down. Fisheries are different; crab’s not doing well. There are all these indicators that something’s changing—but you can never call it a trend if it’s just one year. We need to look carefully and understand these changes in the context of the long term.”

His colleague Sara Iverson also has eyes on the changing ocean—hundreds of eyes (and ears) around the world, in fact. Dr. Iverson is scientific director of the Dal-hosted Ocean Tracking Network, a global network that tracks marine life using state-of-the-art acoustic receivers, telemetry tags, ocean gliders and other oceanographic equipment. Discussing the challenges in managing shifting ocean ecosystems, she notes an example that hits home for Atlantic Canadians: cod populations in the Northwest Atlantic that were decimated by overfishing.

“There is clear evidence the northern cod is coming back, which after the moratorium and decades having passed is very exciting,” she says. “But we cannot just go in and start to fish again without first understanding exactly where they are, where they’re moving, where they’re spawning, the times of the year we absolutely shouldn’t touch them and, most importantly, how to design a sustainable fishery for the future.”

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“We cannot just go in and start to fish again without first understanding … how to design a sustainable fishery for the future,” Sara Iverson, Ocean Tacking Network (OTN)

Farther north, in the region that serves as Canada’s gateway to the Arctic, Aldo Chircop (LLM’84, JSD’88) is watching ocean change of a different sort: melting ice that’s opening up new transportation routes. A faculty member in the Schulich School of Law, Prof. Chircop is a Canada Research Chair in Maritime Law and Policy, with a particular interest in how Canada and other nations will manage these Arctic pathways.

“Just recently there was a report showing much of the southern portion of the Northwest Passage is now ice-free, essentially navigable,” he explains. “We’re going to see more and more traffic there, which will mean increased safety and environmental risks, but we are still developing the legal framework for it.”

Three different researchers, sharing three different examples of ocean change—each raising complex issues too large for one academic discipline, one economic sector or even one country to solve on its own. Hence, the new Ocean Frontier Institute: a Dal-led international initiative to better understand and manage ocean changes, and one set to propel Canada to global ocean leadership like never before.

“It’s an absolute game changer,” says Dr. Worm.

A transformative research partnership

Normally, you can see the ocean from the fourth floor of Dalhousie’s Steele Ocean Sciences Building. But on the first day of classes this past September, the Northwest Arm is shrouded in a typically dense Halifax fog. There’s not much to look at inside the room either: the space is unfinished, nothing more than a well-lit concrete floor. But while there’s little to see, there’s much to celebrate.

More than 200 scientists, politicians, Dal staff and community members have gathered to hear news of the largest research grant in Dalhousie’s history: $94 million from the federal government through its Canada First Research Excellence Fund. The event is the formal kickoff for an ambitious project uniting the leading universities in three Atlantic provinces together with four of the top five ocean institutes in the world, alongside government, industry and donor partners. Their shared goal: ensuring a sustainable future for one of Earth’s most important resources.

“This is a game-changing university partnership that will transform Atlantic Canadian ocean research from world class to world leading.” – The Honourable Scott Brison (BComm’84)

The Honourable Scott Brison (BComm’84), president of the Treasury Board, echoes Dr. Worm’s language in announcing the funding for the Ocean Frontier Institute, or OFI. “This is a game-changing university partnership that will transform Atlantic Canadian ocean research from world class to world leading,” he says.

“Canada has just placed a huge vote of confidence in this region,” adds Dal President Richard Florizone. “And what better place for this visionary investment than right here in Atlantic Canada? We are entirely up to this challenge, with an incredible collaboration that brings together the very best in this region with the best in the world.”

In a few months’ time, the empty fourth floor of the Steele Building will be filled with activity. It will house offices and workspaces for OFI staff, postdocs and students, all working to mobilize a comprehensive research program spanning academic disciplines and linked directly with policy-makers and industry. With financial support totaling nearly $220 million, OFI aims not only to study the changes happening in the Northwest Atlantic ocean—a region of significant scientific interest—but also develop new strategies for safe and sustainable ocean development. The result will be one of the world’s most comprehensive ocean science collaborations, focused on what might be (with apologies to Captain Kirk) the true final frontier.

Through its research, OFI aims to have an impact in a wide variety of areas: prediction and mitigation of major storms; better understanding of the North Atlantic’s role in global climate change; improved management of the ocean’s living resources; more sustainable approaches to aquaculture; improved marine transportation policy and risk reduction; and new data capture and IT tools to monitor the ocean. OFI will also help educate future ocean leaders, from its training programs for students and postdocs to Ocean School, a youth outreach initiative led by Dal and the National Film Board.

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It has many names— the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Arctic—but in fact, the world has only one ocean, spanning the globe. (Stéphane Kirchhoff Photo, OTN)

“We’re able to go to Mars, but we still don’t really know what’s happening at the bottom of the ocean,” says Julie LaRoche (MSc’81, PhD’86), Canada Research Chair in Marine Biogeochemistry and Microbial Genomics at Dal. “It’s the last frontier on our planet that’s still unexplored.”

A centre of ocean research collaboration

Martha Crago sits in her office in Dal’s Henry Hicks Building, engaging in a cartography exercise of sorts: mapping out OFI’s journey from idea to reality. Her blue pen darts across three sheets of white paper, its twists and turns revealing names and acronyms spanning the past decade of Dal ocean research.

There’s OTN (the Ocean Tracking Network); MEOPAR (the Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response network); CERC.Ocean (the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Ocean Science and Technology held by Doug Wallace); COVE (Halifax’s Centre for Ocean Ventures & Entrepreneurship, a new incubator and science park set to open in the former Coast Guard base on the Dartmouth waterfront). Even Angela Merkel, German chancellor, makes an appearance thanks to her 2012 campus visit when she witnessed the signing of an agreement between Dal’s Institute for Ocean Research Enterprise and three major German ocean-related science institutes.

This particular map is strictly for background, but Dr. Crago engaged in a similar process shortly after arriving at Dalhousie University in 2008 as the university’s new vice-president, research. “When I was first looking at coming to Dal, I was struck by the ocean expertise here: the Department of Oceanography, all the profs across the university who work in ocean-related science and scholarship,” she recalls. “And then you learn about the five federal labs in town and the amount of ocean industry. I thought right then: ’This could be something.’ If we can get the university, the federal labs and industry working together, collaborating towards a shared goal—that’s your cluster.”

Together with Iain Stewart (BA’90, DMA’91, MPA’93) (recruited from Industry Canada to serve as assistant vice- president, research, and is now president of the National Research Council), Dr. Crago charted a plan that envisioned a rising tide of Nova Scotian ocean research, backed by significant funding and powered by a growing international profile. Not everything in that plan has happened exactly as outlined but the broad strokes have stayed remarkably similar. Its endpoint would become an international, interdisciplinary ocean institute, one modelled after global exemplars like Germany’s GEOMAR (an OFI partner).

OFI’s opportunity came with the announcement of the Canada First Research Excellence Fund in late 2014. The $1.5 billion federal government competition sought funding applications from universities for projects that would propel Canadian research to global excellence. Dal’s proposal for OFI took months to assemble, with hundreds of meetings, consultations, brainstorming sessions—tapping into the depth and breadth of ocean expertise across the university. Along the way, OFI grew—more diversity in academic disciplines; more collaborators, from federal government labs and the Canadian Coast Guard to the Nova Scotia Community College; more global connecters like GEOMAR and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts; more industry partners, from small local companies to international corporations like IBM.

“It became a much larger collaboration,” says Paul Hill, chair of Dal’s Department of Oceanography, who coordinated the application process. “We couldn’t have 100 people in the room for every meeting, but we needed to make sure we were reaching out to the university community and our partners, getting people engaged in such a way that they could understand and contribute to OFI’s potential.”

Then there was the involvement of Memorial University and the University of Prince Edward Island. Each has particular areas of ocean research strength that complement Dal’s: for example, UPEI’s Canada Excellence Research Chair in Aquatic Epidemiology held by Ian Gardiner, and Memorial’s expertise in offshore fisheries, aquaculture and coastal community engagement. But the idea of a formal inter-institutional partnership between all three universities was a novel one.

“There’s certainly been competition in the past between Dalhousie and Memorial … we’re both in smaller cities where the ocean plays a huge role in our economy and culture. But together, and with UPEI, we really bring a cluster that’s unequalled.” –Paul Snelgrove, Memorial University

“There’s certainly been competition in the past between Dalhousie and Memorial, because we have similar interests: we’re both in smaller cities where the ocean plays a huge role in our economy and culture,” explains Paul Snelgrove, Memorial professor and director of the Canadian Healthy Oceans Network. “But together, and with UPEI, we really bring a cluster that’s unequalled. Seeing us working together is really quite wonderful and key to taking full advantage of this opportunity.”

“The partnerships we have in OFI are truly spectacular,” says Wendy Watson-Wright (BPE’76, MSc’80, PhD’86), who has returned to her alma mater to serve as OFI’s CEO after having led UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (2010-2015), and Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Science sector prior to that. “All of our researchers have so much exciting work happening, which will contribute to our understanding of ocean changes and to developing sustainable solutions. Our opportunity here is to expand its reach and impact through collaborating more broadly and integrating the various disciplines, positioning OFI as a global best practice.”

Also crucial to the OFI opportunity: community support, none more important than that of businessman and philanthropist John Risley. The founder of Clearwater Seafoods personally committed $25 million to support OFI’s operations, a gift that helped catalyze the whole project.

“It is enormously important the community appreciate the extent to which the institute has—and will—bring together so many partners across the Atlantic Canadian scene,” says Risley. “I have every confidence OFI can become an engine for regional economic growth and firmly establish us as global leaders in ocean science.”

Wider Links to industry and the economy

Of course, in many respects, Dalhousie and Atlantic Canada have always led in ocean science. If one were to continue Dr. Crago’s cartography exercise backwards in time, beyond the past decade, it would sketch a long, impressive legacy. You’d see the formation of Dal’s Institute of Oceanography in 1959, with the Bedford Institute of Oceanography shortly thereafter in 1962. There would be faculty members like Robert Fournier, Elisabeth Mann Borgese, John Cullen, Ransom Myers (MSc’80, PhD’83). It would include programs like Marine Affairs, organizations like the Marine and Environmental Law Institute and spin-out companies like Halifax ocean tech firm Satlantic.

“Dalhousie is widely recognized as Canada’s leading institution in oceans. This is about upping the game, positioning Dalhousie and Canada on the world stage of ocean research—in science, in engineering, as well as law, the social sciences and humanities.” – Marlon Lewis (PhD’84), founder of Satlantic

“Dalhousie is widely recognized as Canada’s leading institution in oceans,” says Marlon Lewis (PhD’84), founder of Satlantic and former Dal Oceanography chair. “This is about upping the game, positioning Dalhousie and Canada on the world stage of ocean research—in science, in engineering, as well as law, the social sciences and humanities.”

Dr. Lewis’ deep links to both ocean research and industry in Halifax are a big reason why he was hired as OFI’s launch scientific director. He’ll help kickstart a research program that covers 17 different interdisciplinary modules, each addressing a different topic related to the Northwest Atlantic and Canada’s Arctic gateway. The reason for that geographic focus is about more than just proximity. The Northwest Atlantic is a region where ocean changes are happening first and fastest, with highly productive marine ecosystems and one of the most concentrated and active carbon sinks on the planet—helping mitigate climate change, but also seeing its effects more quickly.

OFI is not only an important opportunity for our ocean’s future, but Atlantic Canada’s as well. Dr. Crago was part of the One Nova Scotia Coalition, helping prepare an action plan that includes Nova Scotia’s “Ocean Advantage” as one of its pillars in growing a stronger economy. OFI will help build on that rising tide of ocean research momentum in the region, providing the scientific, technological and human capacity to advance Atlantic Canada’s ocean economy.

“OFI underlines and aligns with a renewed effort to have an Atlantic economy strategy, one based on the strengths of our different provinces and what we, as a region, can work collaboratively on,” says Dr. Crago. “We need to do things together here to succeed—and working together is what OFI is all about.”