Talking with Wendy Watson-Wright on World Oceans Day
'It's because of the ocean that we are able to live on this planet."
Billy Comeau - June 8, 2011
Dalhousie Oceans Week has seen a wave of prominent figures in ocean-related research drop anchor in Halifax over the past week.
Once such person is Wendy Watson-Wright, Assistant Director General and Executive Secretary of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (IOC-UNESCO). A Killam scholar, she holds three degrees from Dalhousie, including a PhD in Physiology.
“It’s great to be back in Halifax,” says Dr. Watson-Wright, who spent 25 years in Halifax before leaving for new career opportunities. “ You can’t beat it here. It’s always beautiful.”
Headquartered in Paris
Prior to working at the IOC in Paris, she was the Assistant Deputy Minister for Science with Fisheries and Oceans Canada in Ottawa. In 2010 she began her current position with IOC-UNESCO.
Headquartered in Paris, IOC-UNESCO promotes international cooperation and coordinates programmes in marine research, services, observation systems, hazard mitigation and capacity development in order to better manage the nature and resources of the oceans and coastal areas.
“Every country, whether on the ocean or not, is affected by the ocean,” says Dr. Watson-Wright. “The IOC’s role is to bring the 139 member-states together and try to negotiate agreements and sharing information.”
She is very impressed with the new Halifax Marine Research Institute, launched June 2, of which Dalhousie is a part, along with all levels of government, other educational institutions and industry.
“I don’t know many places in the world that have a centre that brings the ocean scientific communities together — this will be a big boost for Atlantic Canada and the country,” she explains. “For (the IOC) as global conveners, having a point of contact which brings together all the various elements of the ocean science, technology and industry makes it easier for us to access that community.”
Referencing comments made by Dalhousie’s Canada Excellence Research Chair, Doug Wallace, she said she was excited about the potential for capacity development where countries like Canada can help less developed countries with their own science and marine technology capacity.
“That is a large part of our mandate as a UN organization and the only one charged with marine science. I can see the HMRI playing a very important role in helping that capacity development,” says Dr. Watson-Wright.
Regarding the state of the ocean, Dr. Watson-Wright says there are very real issues facing its health.
“We’ve treated the ocean like a dump for many years. Greenhouse gas and carbon dioxide emissions are affecting the ocean profoundly. The ocean protects us from catastrophic climate change and is the reason temperatures aren’t higher. But it’s warming and absorbing carbon dioxide and becoming more acidic.
We know it’s having impacts on coral reefs and organisms that rely on calcium carbonate to form shells and at the very base of the food chain on phytoplankton – that’s quite scary. That said, there are good news stories and we need to be looking for best-practices and adopting them to come up with solutions.”
One problem, according to Dr. Watson-Wright, is that many people don’t realize the damage being done to the ocean, especially those living far from it. “It’s because of the ocean we are able to live on this planet,” she says.
To overcome these issues, we’ll need to persevere," explains Dr. Watson-Wright. “At the upcoming United Nations conference in June, Rio +20, the ocean needs to figure prominently. While there will be talk of the green economy a discussion needs to address the blue-economy as well. The ocean provides a lot of jobs and development but we have to make sure this is done in a sustainable manner.”
To upcoming students in ocean-related studies she says be happy and enjoy it. “Remember it’s a big ocean and there are many issues and aspects you can look at from natural science, coastal issues, social science to law and policy.”
Now enjoying living in Paris, she says the only thing missing is an ocean. While she used to figure skate quite a bit, she says she has taken up walking through Paris, which is never boring. As for the job, her passion for the ocean is as strong as ever.
“How can someone not be passionate to be working on the ocean? You feel like maybe you’re making a difference.”
As Assistant Director General and Executive Secretary of IOC-UNESCO, it’s safe to say, she is.