Q and A with Ron O'Dor
Thoughts on the state of the world's oceans from one of Dal's pre-eminent scientists
Billy Comeau - June 3, 2011
Dalhousie is able to call itself a powerhouse in ocean-related research because of the outstanding and world-class faculty who teach and do research here. One of those people is Ron O'Dor, who sat down for a Q&A with Dal News.
As a professor in the Department of Biology, Dr. O’Dor’s roles as the global scientific director for the Ocean Tracking Network (OTN) and senior scientist of the international Census of Marine Life (CoML) give him credence to address the state of the world’s oceans. He is a world leader in biotelemetry, environmental physiology and squid biology, and has published more than 100 peer-reviewed articles as well as several books. The winner of the 2009 Canadian Council of University Biology Chairs (CCUBC) Science Promotion Prize, Dr. O’Dor was named Canada’s Environmental Scientist of the Year by Canadian Geographic in 2009 in recognition based for his roles in OTN and CoML.
Since its official launch in 2008, is the promise of OTN being realized?
I think it’s very much being realized. There’s a lot of interest in the program and it’s never difficult finding partners to work with. But, like any project, there are delays due to human and economic factors. It’s a great thing for Dalhousie and President Traves was instrumental in keeping OTN afloat while we were waiting for it to all come together and that was key in getting to where it is now.
We either have or will have, by the end of 2011, tracking lines in Halifax, Cabot Strait, the Strait of Belle Isle and Antigonish. Additionally, there are lines in Vancouver and Alaska and globally in Australia, South Africa, Hawaii, Gibraltar and the Azores. All of these lines are tracking tagged marine life from our partners around the world, telling us where they’ve been and what the conditions are.
This week is Dalhousie Oceans Week, celebrating the powerful role and the incredible potential that the oceans sector has in our economy, environment and culture. Is Dalhousie a global leader in oceans research and creating global partnerships?
Dalhousie, being able to coordinate these efforts and all the different players, both internal and external, makes a huge difference in having it all work together. Dalhousie has world-class faculty and that’s a known fact. It creates a common place where industry, government and scientists can come together and share information — that’s crucial.
Have Dalhousie and OTN helped change the conversation at the government and decision-making levels?
There is a recognition that Canada depends on the oceans and that we can’t continue to ignore them. Dalhousie has played a major role in making this happen. OTN has helped because it has a direct interaction with the University of Victoria and the NEPTUNE and VENUS projects and is a bridge between these groups that previously communicated less. The East, West and Arctic Coasts surround Ottawa and can keep the pressure on.
Why is tracking and mapping the ocean and marine life important?
A former dean at Memorial said ‘We know more about the moon’s behind than we do the ocean’s bottom,” and that’s still true.
We spent $650 million on CoML over 10 years, like what NASA spends on one project. So was it too expensive or not enough? It’s tough to say when you’re dealing with an environment that you don’t understand, so we need to learn as much as we can. I was in Australia tracking cuttlefish and we couldn’t figure out why our GPS data wouldn’t locate on the map. Well it turned out the map hadn’t been updated since Captain Cook, showing the ocean bottom the way it was mapped centuries ago.
The narrowest possible perspective of why we should be doing this is because the Law of the Sea says your exclusive economic zone is the edge of the continental shelf and defining that requires high-resolution mapping.
But, that’s not the only reason, correct?
Well, the much more complicated reason is that there are all kinds of resources out there being mismanaged.
Over and over, OTN, Census, the Pacific Ocean Shelf Tracking (POST) Project have shown by research that these animals, worth a lot of money, don’t carry passports. We have endangered species from California spending six months in British Columbia and being caught in nets there as by-catch. Once we were able to track them from California the fisherman were able to avoid fishing when the endangered green sturgeon were present.
It sounds like tagged animals almost act as research assistants?
We call the animals “bioprobes.” They measure the characteristics of the water at all times and can get to areas of the Arctic where we can't go. There are fewer oceanographic research vessels today and as a result, marine animals have returned much more information than humans – for a lot less money and for their own benefit.
What is the scientific community learning from this data?
One thing we know is that it's all changing. Not only do we have fewer animals, but their habitat is changing and their behaviours change with it. That represents a lot of resources the world depends on, so we need to understand this.
You’ve spent a lot of time traveling and speaking about these issues, especially in the last 10 years with Census. Does the global community take these issues seriously?
I've been quite pleased with how much respect Census has received for being a purveyor of good information. There have been about a dozen new protected non-trawling areas that have been agreed to and much of that is a result of organizations like Census and OTN. Good, solid research is a convincing tool.
How important is getting the information right and translating it to the public? Will it work?
My mantra is when you protect areas they recover. Obviously seamounts covered in 125-year-old orange roughy won’t recover in 10 years. There are various fisheries that are capable of recovery, as Boris Worm, Heike Lotze, the late Ransom Myers and others have shown. But, it will take time, good research and good planning from governments, industry and the science community.
You recently wrapped up teaching a course on Census here at Dalhousie. What did you take away from getting back into the classroom?
I showed them results from CoML over the last decade. Although I take a laissez-faire attitude that people aren’t so stupid that they will let things collapse completely, my students, seeing the damage, were sort of “This is my ocean and these old people have left me with this problem.” I think most of us in the Census thought that although things weren't wonderful, they could be worse and there is a lot of biodiversity left. But these students hearing it all at one time, were frustrated with the problems. One said in his final exam, “People have to remember, the ocean is not just our pantry, it is our toilet and our air conditioner!”
Is the outlook positive for the future of the oceans?
There are some things that are hard to see around, such as acidification. Coral reefs will take a big hit, especially in the Arctic. The coral reefs on seamounts there will go first, and I haven't seen a plan that will deal with this.
Should there be more support and emphasis, from all sectors, for ocean and marine research?
Is it true the ocean effects you no matter where you are?
Yes. I use a video produced by National Geographic that says “Breathe in, breathe in again, every second breath you take is from the ocean.” So yes, it affects us all.
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