Saving the Blue Planet

Protecting 'the common heritage of all mankind'

- February 14, 2011

Dalhousie professor Boris Worm. Danny Abriel Photo.
Dalhousie professor Boris Worm. Danny Abriel Photo.

If Boris Worm’s contribution to oceans research and conservation started and finished with his much-publicized Science article in 2006, it would still be quite the legacy.

That article, among the most famous to ever have come out of Dalhousie, exploded through both the scientific community and the general public, with its attention-grabbing finding that if current trends continued, the global seafood supply would collapse by 2048. The debate, discussion and news coverage it inspired was unparalleled.

Dr. Worm’s name continues to be associated with some of the world’s most important oceans research, in newspapers and scientific journals alike. For example, though less of a media phenomenon, his 2009 article with fisheries scientist Ray Hilborn—known as the “consensus paper” for how it brought fisheries researchers and biologists together—has proven incredibly influential in scientific and policy circles.

And now, Dr. Worm adds an NSERC Steacie Fellowship to his accomplishments, one of only six awarded in Canada each year. Its purpose is to enhance the career development of outstanding and highly promising university faculty who are earning a strong international reputation for original research.

“What it means mostly to me is freedom—academic freedom to pursue my interests and to ask new questions and devote all my time to research,” says Dr. Worm. The award is worth $250,000, which will support his work in ecosystem oceanography: understanding how the global oceans are changing from top to bottom. It also relieves him of his teaching and administrative duties for two years to focus on research.

Deeply fascinated by nature

Listening to Dr. Worm describe his research illustrates what makes him such a compelling scientist. For all the complex challenges the global oceans face, he approaches his quest to understand them with a youthful enthusiasm, one still deeply fascinated by the role nature plays in our lives.

“My most prevalent character trait is curiosity. I think I just have a fascination with life in general: how it’s organized, the colourfulness of it.” He points to a map on his office wall that he helped produce last year that charts global ocean biodiversity in vibrant colour; it was published in National Geographic. “To me, those patterns are beautiful and fascinating, because they encapsulate a lot about life on earth and how it’s changing.”

Another one of Dr. Worm’s main character traits: optimism, which may seem in sharp contrast with some of the harsh warnings presented by his work.

“Anyone who knows me would say that I’m a very optimistic person, so it’s kind of ironic that I’m the person pointing out the dramatic declines we see in many marine ecosystems. It’s just that when you look at the data, it’s not very rosy. You have to say that loud and clear, then devise science-based strategies to turn that around. And that’s where most of my interest lies now.”

Responding to the reaction

He pursues that interest with an eye not just to research publications and his fellow scientists, but to reaching as far beyond the scientific community as possible. Dr. Worm’s acute sense of language helps him translate his work’s message to a wide range of people, from policy-makers to journalists and the general public. Admittedly, sometimes this isn’t always a perfect translation—upon reflection, he feels that the sensationalist reaction to the 2048 number overshadowed many of the other findings of his famous Science article—but he feels it’s important to influence a broader discussion about the state of our oceans and the critical role they play in our lives.

“The oceans, by law, are a public resource. It’s written right into international law: ‘the common heritage of all mankind.’ So all mankind should, on some level, be aware of it and invested in ensuring that common heritage remains productive, healthy and something that supports us and life on the planet as a whole.”

As for whether he’ll ever lose that trademark curiosity, Dr. Worm laughs and points out that when it comes to the oceans—and science in general—the potential for discovery far outpaces our existing knowledge.

“People have this misconception that science is filling in the few blank spots on a map of understanding that’s fairly complete. It’s the exact opposite: we’re filling in the few spots of understanding in a sea of ignorance. Particularly in the oceans, there is so much to be learned still.”


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