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When Dr. Ussif Rashid Sumaila was a boy, running and playing with other kids around his home in Nigeria, his grandfather would say, “Children, why are you hitting the ground so hard? You should walk on the earth as if it feels pain.” Only later did Dr. Sumaila begin to understand that his grandfather was, in fact, espousing sophisticated environmentalism.
Today, environmental considerations are Dr. Sumaila’s life’s work. But it’s not the land whose pain he is focused on, but that of the oceans. A professor and Canada Research Chair in Interdisciplinary Ocean and Fisheries Economics at UBC’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, he is making waves felt around the planet. The World Trade Organization, World Bank, United Nations, Convention on Biodiversity, to name a few, widely utilize and cite Dr. Sumaila’s research and analysis related to bioeconomics, fishing subsidies, climate change and ocean resource management.
We sat down with Dr. Sumaila to discuss the challenges facing our oceans and the importance of interdisciplinary international collaboration when it comes to tackling the most daunting issues of our day.
Why should everyone care about the ocean, even people who don’t live near the coast?
Our lives depend on the ocean – it offers us so much. Half of Earth’s oxygen is generated by the ocean. It moderates the temperature, even inland. The ocean takes up 70 percent of the surface of Earth. (I tell my students, if you mess up 70 percent of your exams, you’re not going anywhere!) Then there’s the fish. Trade makes it possible for everyone on the planet to benefit from the amazing food, protein and micronutrients we get from the ocean. So the ocean really is important for everyone.
What are some of the most pressing issues?
Three come to mind. The first is the amount of fish we’re taking out of the ocean. We’re fishing down the marine food web – taking the biggest fish, then the next biggest, then the next. We have an overfishing problem. We also have climate change, which is warming the oceans and causing acidification and deoxygenation. The Pacific is known as a hotspot of deoxygenation: the oxygen content is already low, and if it continues to decline, it could reduce biodiversity and have major impacts on ocean ecosystems. Then we have the pollution problem: plastic and other debris going into the ocean.
How does your work combat these global problems?
By using economics, integrated with other disciplines, to find solutions and insights for the world to better manage the ocean and its resources sustainably; not only for us, but for future generations. Specifically, I look at the high seas. The ocean is split into two areas: country waters, the area within 200 nautical miles of the coast, and the high seas, which is the rest. The high seas make up two-thirds of the surface of the ocean – that’s half the Earth’s surface.
The world is connected. You can always pretend you’re an island, but no country or community is an island.
What are you currently investigating?
One area we’re looking into is closing the high seas to fishing, to turn it into a fish bank where marine life can grow and thrive. Then, when they spill into country waters, they can be caught and consumed locally. It’s potentially good for economics and biodiversity. It’s also positive for smaller countries in the developing world that lack the resources for high-seas fishing. They can catch the fish they need when they come into their country waters.
How can we overcome the formidable problems facing the ocean and environment?
I deeply believe that the big global issues cannot be solved by one discipline – not even economists! With the ocean and climate change, we need global partnerships, because the environment, economics, and social and cultural issues are all affected. Many perspectives must be brought to bear, so we need interdisciplinarity.
Why is it important for universities, UBC in particular, to engage with these big global issues?
The world is connected. You can always pretend you’re an island, but no country or community is an island. COVID-19 has shown us this very clearly – something that starts in one part of the world quickly spreads all over.
How are UBC researchers partnering globally to be part of the solution?
I like to describe UBC as a modern university because we get to work on the things we believe in. The leadership encourages us. Interdisciplinarity is a big thing at UBC, and it helps us address global issues in a collective way. UBC ranks No. 1 in “climate action,” for example, according to the Times Higher Education university rankings.
We’ve been building a global database of information on oceans since 2000. We collect data, do analysis and share information with groups such as the World Trade Organization, UN, World Bank and the African Union. So global engagement is essential for those of us lucky enough to be Canadian. We know that for us to do well, the rest of the world has to do well, too.
Read more on Dr. Sumaila’s global collaborations and planet-saving research.