"Sea"‑ing change in ocean scholarship — from Confederation to our future

- May 25, 2017

Left to right: Aldo Chircop, Shelley Denny, Sue Goyette, Eric Mills, Ted Cavanaugh, Jerry Bannister (moderator). (Cherry Au photo)
Left to right: Aldo Chircop, Shelley Denny, Sue Goyette, Eric Mills, Ted Cavanaugh, Jerry Bannister (moderator). (Cherry Au photo)

A century and a half after it was founded, Canada continues to evolve, expand and grow. And in the future, more than ever, that expansion will happen on the open seas.

Negotiated over a decade and a half in the 1970s and early 1980s and ratified in 1994, the United Nations Law of the Sea paved the way for coastal nations around the world — including Canada — to claim adjacent bodies of water and the resources within as a natural extension of their land.

“In essence, we ended up with a new global regime which provided this incredible ability for coastal states to claim adjacent spaces,” said Aldo Chircop, Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Maritime Law and Policy and professor in Dal’s Schulich School of Law, at a forum on campus earlier this month. “That was really quite an amazing development in law.”

Dr. Chircop, an expert in Canadian and international maritime law with a speciality in the regulation of shipping practices in polar regions, said the U.N. convention has opened up the possibility that Canada may one day expand into the Arctic.

Dr. Chircop was one of several Dal scholars to take part in the May 11 public panel, which explored the economic, ecological, social and cultural ties that have shaped Canada’s interactions with the ocean since Confederation in 1867.

Exploring different perspectives

The panel was part of a larger three-day event called “Canada’s Responsibility to Our Shining Seas” put on by the Social Sciences and Humanities Oceans Research and Education network. Supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the forum also included workshops and short-film screenings.

Chaired by Dal History professor Jerry Bannister, the panel also featured short talks by Sue Goyette (Creative Writing), Ted Cavanagh (Architecture and Planning/Marine Affairs), and Eric Mills (Oceanography), as well as Interdisciplinary PhD student Shelley Denny.

Attendees at the event, held in the Rowe Building, learned about a wide range of topics from the history of marine sciences and maritime law to the building of coastal structures and relations with Indigenous communities.

Dr. Mills, also a founding faculty member and professor in the University of King College’s History of Science and Technology program, provided a snapshot of how marine science in Canada shifted around the time of the Second World War away from biology towards physics.

“It became necessary to know something about the physics of the ocean — particularly, how sound is transmitted, whether acoustic mines and submarines could be detected, and how water properties [such as temperature] affected that,” said Dr. Mills.

Past and contemporary issues

Other panelists turned their attention to more contemporary issues. Denny, who works as the director of aquatic research and stewardship of the Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources (UINR) in Cape Breton, spoke about her work exploring how to address management concerns around preservation of natural resources (such as the Atlantic salmon population) in the traditional territory of Mi’kmaq communities.

“There were positive outcomes from consultation processes regarding [the sustainability of] the Atlantic salmon population, such as sharing responsibility, improving accountability and building relationships,” said Denny, of consultations between the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Mi’kmaq communities in Nova Scotia.

“When working with Indigenous peoples, it is important to remember how things are done is as important as what’s being done.”

Dr. Cavanagh also touched upon sustainability within local coastal communities, only from the perspective of architecture. As director of Dalhousie’s Coastal Studio, he brings an innovative lens to the study of oceans and coastal environments by designing projects built to benefit and withstand the harsh climates of Maritime coastal communities.

In Chéticamp, Cape Breton, for instance, his team has designed a gridshell for an outdoor farmer’s market that can endure the region’s wind gusts of up to 200 kilometres per hour.

Thinking about the ocean’s future

Dr. Cavanagh and several of the other panellists spoke about the impacts of climate change during the discussion portion of the event following prepared remarks.

Goyette, a Creative Writing instructor and an award-winning poet who has written a whole collection inspired by the ocean, spoke about how climate change is forcing humanity to rethink its relationship to the ocean.

“The ocean and climate change is going to have a big effect on our idea of learning,” she said. “I think that we’re going to have to reconcile our relationships with the land, with the first peoples of our land, and understand that our commoditized way of living is going to have to change.”

While each scholar showcased a distinct approach to understanding the human dimension of marine studies, Dr. Bannister — the moderator — teased out the common thread in them all.

“Whether it’s building coastal structure, whether it’s Maritime law, Indigenous peoples’ cultures and their relationship to the land,” he said, “there is this way of approaching [marine studies] through the lens of stories and narratives.”


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