Interview with Dr. Jonathan Moore

Associate Professor, Department of Biological Sciences

Aquatic Ecology & Conservation

The aim of Dr. Moore’s research is to understand how salmon watersheds work, what controls their dynamics and sustainability, and through that improve decision-making. He enjoys being out in the field, getting ideas from watching the rivers and salmon, talking to people and working with students. Indeed, he loves the whole process, from brainstorming to muddy boots, to analyzing the data to understand what it means and putting it together into a story.

What topics is your group researching right now?
Our work ranges from large- to small-scale. Our big synthetic projects bring data together from huge watersheds like the Fraser or Skeena in British Columbia. These big projects teach us about the fundamental ways that systems are organized. For example, how a large river deals with climate change and perturbation; these large systems seem to have defenses that buffer against disturbances.

At the other end of the spectrum, we study specific sites to fill knowledge gaps. For a given location we can ask questions about the consequences of potential development or the legacy of past actions. For example, in the lower Fraser there are barriers that block high tide water from going into the farmers’ fields, but many of these don't open anymore, and this can block fish and harm water quality. We have projects scattered across BC – in the Fraser, Skeena, and Central Coast regions and on Vancouver Island – as well as in the Arctic.

What is the funding landscape like for your research program, and how has it changed?
I feel quite fortunate to be Simon Fraser University’s Liber Ero Chair of Coastal Science and Management. It provides stable funding and this allows me to jump on new ideas and opportunities more readily. Other funding comes from collaborative partnerships, different organizations, the federal government (e.g., the Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada), or industry groups. The federal government has prioritized collaborative science to break down the walls between academia and agencies, so what we do becomes more linked to problems that matter to society.

In your experience, what approach leads to successful partnerships with communities and interest groups like First Nations or government agencies?
It's important to listen to people about what the real issues and knowledge gaps are. These interactions not only inform scientific communication, but also the scientific process and how we develop our research questions. One key thing university scientists can benefit from is understanding which scientific questions matter in a particular place and time. Scientists are good at thinking about interesting scientific questions but studying a particular question may not be the science that's needed.

Koeye River weir (south of Bella Bella, B.C.), June 2015; design based on ancient salmon weirs. Photo courtesy of Bryant DeRoy.

How does your engagement with First Nations groups shape your research?
One project I'm proud of was created as a collaboration between one of my graduate students and the Heiltsuk First Nation. They are using ancient technologies in which cedar and alder are used to build a traditional-style fish weir that is placed across rivers to help with counting fish. About a century ago, the federal government banned and destroyed these structures. This project revitalizes this tradition as a tool for counting fish stocks. It is a really cool integration of the Heiltsuk First Nation’s traditional knowledge and technology with modern academic approaches of tagging and modeling fish populations.

How does your research inform policy, and how do you view your role?
To date, I've contributed to policy through two main approaches. The first is filling scientific knowledge gaps to inform environmental decision-making. For example, when a large liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal was proposed in the Skeena estuary there wasn't much known about the young salmon there and what the risks might be; I saw our role as trying to fill that knowledge gap and share our findings in ways that are accessible and useful.

My second approach involves contributing to evaluation of regulatory processes. For example, the federal government is currently reassessing the environmental assessment act and I've contributed to that panel.

What concerns would you like to see addressed to improve the regulatory review process by the federal government?
Right now the federal government is reviewing much of their key pieces of environmental legislation, such as the Fisheries Act and the Canadian Environmental Act. Broadly, there are major deficiencies in how risks of potential projects are assessed. There is a need for assessments and decisions to be based on rigorous, open, and independent science. I worked with scientists across Canada to chart out these scientific recommendations in a report called ‘Strong Foundations’.

How can universities do a better job of preparing young scientists to engage various research users?
Scientists often think that the endpoint is when the manuscript is published. But sometimes it needs to go further than that: perhaps you need to draft a press release and work with media outlets, or go to the community you work with and give a presentation, or reach out to decision-makers. The various types of communication for different audiences demands a different style and approach, so increasing our portfolio of communication abilities will enable scientists to do more impactful research.

What will be the next ‘big thing’ in your field?
Many key aspects of natural resource management are at the intersection of science and society. For example, how do watersheds and people and salmon respond collectively to climate change?

In Canada, one of the most critical topics is the role of indigenous communities in resource management and stewardship.

What contemporary scientific issue concerns you the most and needs more attention?
I think there is an urgent need for science that can inform and inspire society towards thriving ecosystems and economies.

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 Read more: Dr. Moore’s profile on the Biological Sciences website,  his Salmon Watersheds Lab site, and the Featured Researchers page

Interview by Jacqueline Watson with Theresa Kitos