From salmon to sharks and beyond, SFU's all-star research group E2O tackles
pressing issues in conservation and ecology of aquatic ecosystems
The seed was planted in 2005 when John Reynolds and Isabelle Côté both journeyed from England to take up new faculty positions at SFU’s Department of Biological Sciences.
“At the University of East Anglia, we had been part of a highly collaborative research group where half a dozen ecologists with widely divergent interests shared space, resources and students with little regard for territorial boundaries,” says Reynolds, whose new role at SFU also included the title of the Tom Buell BC Leadership Chair in Salmon Conservation. They believed it would be worthwhile to create a new group based on this collaborative model it at SFU, a university known widely for leveraging its research strengths and partnerships to achieve real world impact.
It would take several years, but in 2010, the Earth to Ocean Research Group (E2O) was formed and has since collectively endeavoured to tackle pressing questions in aquatic conservation: the global ramifications of climate change, sustainable energy, invasive species, habitat alteration, international trade, and fisheries sustainability.
Rounding out the group are: Larry Dill, a behavioural ecologist and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (and now a Professor Emeritus); Nick Dulvy, who joined SFU in 2008 as a Canada Research Chair in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation; Wendy Palen, an expert in freshwater conservation (she and Côté were recently selected for the prestigious Leopold Leadership Program at Stanford University to hone their skills at translating knowledge into action); and Jonathan Moore, who holds the Liber Eco Chair of Coastal Science and Management.
“All of us are intensely curious about how nature works and we share a desire to make the natural world a better place,” says Côté. “This ranges from wondering about species: Why do they do what they do or look the way they look? To concern about habitats and ecosystems: What makes them function, what makes them break down, and how can we fix them?”
The group includes 40 or so graduate students and postdocs, and works in an open space–an arrangement to maximize both efficiency and facilitates dialogue. In this manner, the E2O group has produced an eclectic set of greatest research hits. They compiled the first global assessment on the world’s sharks and rays, helping to spur a global decision to protect some of the most endangered species from international trade. Also, their pioneering research into impacts of invasive lionfish on coral reefs has led to management strategy implementation across the Caribbean.
Closer to home, a long-term collaboration with First Nations communities has revealed vulnerability of juvenile salmon habitat to proposed LNG facilities in northern B.C. Another project resulted in a sophisticated tool that can identify prime locations for future small-scale hydroelectric projects. Meanwhile, a long-term study of fifty watersheds in the province’s Great Bear Rainforest has demonstrated the impacts of salmon on terrestrial ecosystems, important for evidence-based ecosystem-based management.
“Our scientists rang some of the first alarm bells on climate change,” says Dulvy. “Dr. Côté revealed how climate change, disease, invasive species, and overfishing has flattened Caribbean coral reefs; Dr. Reynolds showed how fishes were rapidly moving northward; and I showed how they were deepening to escape climate change. Together, we revealed that, paradoxically, those in tropical nations are most likely to suffer the effects of climate change on their fisheries. This work lead to a mindshift in major institutions, including the UN, yet also proved so controversial that the George W. Bush government censured the findings.”
The E2O group has become a hub for linking science to real world problems and solutions and continues to demonstrated how researchers with diverse skill sets who are united by common priorities can work together to achieve what most benefits society.
Q & A with E2O
What motivates you as a researcher?
Dulvy: We are in the unique position of being the first generation to observe worldwide change in climate and biodiversity and we are also the last generation that can do anything about it. At the E2O, we are uniquely placed to reveal the state of our ecosystems and to provide options for the future.
If you could sum up the value of university research in a word, what would it be?
Côté: Objectivity. Academic research gives us the ability to pursue fundamental and applied research in an unbiased manner, free from agendas and politics. Of course, when we tackle sensitive questions that have a bearing on fisheries, energy or protected areas, we sometimes wade into politically or socially charged situations, but we let the facts speak for themselves.
How is your research making an impact on our lives?
Côté: We’re often the bearers of bad news because much of our research documents problems. We would like to think that we’re increasingly proposing solutions now that we understand what the challenges are.
Putting one’s work out into the world often requires a leap of courage. Where do you find yours?
Dulvy: Time is running out and we have children. We need to do something fast before dumping the world’s problems on them.
What do you see as the most noteworthy emerging trend that will shape the direction of university research over the next 50 years?
Dulvy: Traditionally, academics were rewarded based on the quantity and quality of scientific outputs. SFU, by setting the vision of “enagaging the world”, is creating space for people like us, those who go beyond the data to figure out what it means for the ecology of the earth.
(Left to right: Dr. Reynolds, Dr. Côté, Dr. Moore, Dr. Dulvy. Not pictured: Dr. Palen, Dr. Dill.)
Dr. Isabelle Côté has published more than 100 peer-reviewed articles on behavioural ecology, coral reef ecology, and conservation. She was awarded the 2008 Marsh Award for Conservation Biology by the Zoological Society of London for "contributions of fundamental science to the conservation of animal species and habitats." Her research has addressed the extent of coral reef declines in the Caribbean at a regional level, and measured the effectiveness of marine protected areas at enhancing fish and their habitats.
Dr. Nick Dulvy is co-chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Shark Specialist Group and is Canada Research Chair tier II in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation. He was the 2008 recipient of the Zoological Society of London's Marsh Award for Marine and Freshwater Conservation, and in 2010 he was made a Conservation Fellow of the Zoological Society of London. In 2014 Dulvy was the primary author of the first global analysis of the vulnerability of chondrichthyans. As the most endangered species of sharks and rays are sawfishes, Dulvy and co-authors then developed the first global sawfish conservation strategy.
Dr. Jonathan Moore is broadly interested in the ecology and management of aquatic ecosystems. General interests include biodiversity, watersheds, species interactions, biogeochemistry, subsidies, ecosystem engineers, disturbance, and global change. He does much of his work in the freshwaters that Pacific salmon call home and so, not surprisingly, works quite a bit on this group of ecologically important species. Dr. Moore and his students aim to do research that has conservation and management implications, and they use a combination of field experiments, field observations, and modeling.
Dr. Wendy Palen is an associate professor in biological sciences. She is currently the assistant director of the Liber Ero Postdoctoral Fellowship program, and serves as an advisor to several Canadian species recovery teams, the US Forest Service, US National Park Service, and several non-governmental organizations. The broad suite of projects her group is currently tackling includes; how do we most effectively use limited conservation funding to recover a group of highly endangered fishes and amphibians? How will changing global climate affect those species that we currently think of as ‘safe’? How do we move from trying to recover species after they have declined to predicting declines before they happen?
Dr. John Reynolds is an ecologist and holder of the Tom Buell BC Leadership Chair in Salmon Conservation and Management at SFU. He is a specialist in fish ecology and conservation, particularly Pacific salmon in the Great Bear Rainforest, as well on extinction risk in marine fishes. He is Co-Chair of marine fish committee of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Reynolds has received the J.C. Stevenson Award and Lecture from the Canadian Conference for Fisheries Research (2003) and the FSBI Medal of the Fisheries Society of the British Isles (2000).