From salmon to sharks and beyond, SFU's all star E2O group tackles pressing issues in conservation and ecology of aquatic ecosystems
It all started in 2005. John Reynolds had just been appointed to the Tom Buell BC Leadership Chair in Salmon Conservation at SFU. He and Isabelle Côté, a researcher in marine ecology and conservation, had come from England to take up their positions in SFU’s Department of Biological Sciences.
“At the University of East Anglia, we had both 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. This approach proved so successful that it was a no-brainer to recreate it at SFU which is widely known for leveraging its research strengths and partnerships to achieve real-world impact.
Four SFU faculty members have joined forces with Reynolds and Côté to tackle the big questions in aquatic conservation. Larry Dill, a behavioural ecologist and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (now Professor Emeritus), was the first to sign on. Then came Nick Dulvy, who joined SFU in 2008 as a Canada Research Chair in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation. Wendy Palen, an expert in freshwater conservation, was next. She, along with Côté were recently selected for the prestigious Leopold Leadership Program at Stanford University to hone their skills in translating knowledge into action. The last to join was Jonathan Moore; he holds the Liber Eco Chair of Coastal Science and Management.
Together, they form the Earth to Ocean Research Group (E2O). Their name reflects the fact that what happens in the ocean can’t be divorced from what happens on land. These issues include the global ramifications of climate change, sustainable energy, invasive species, habitat alteration, international trade, and fisheries sustainability.
Reflecting their collegial philosophy, there is no “Côté lab” or “Dulvy lab”. The 40 or so graduate students and postdoctoral fellows work in an open space, which maximizes efficiency and facilitates dialogue. Collaboration is encouraged through monthly research meetings and the hugely popular Stats-beerz get-togethers where many a statistical problem has been solved over pints of homemade beer. And in 2011, the E2O’s Research Derby saw teams of four to five graduate students work (continuously) for 24 hours to generate two novel research projects subsequently published in top scientific journals.
The E2O group has produced an eclectic set of greatest research hits. They compiled the world’s first global assessment of the status of the world’s sharks and rays, which directly contributed to a global decision to protect some of the most endangered species from international trade. Their pioneering research into the impacts of invasive lionfish on coral reefs has led to management strategies being widely implemented across the Caribbean. Closer to home, a long-term collaboration with First Nations communities has revealed the vulnerability of juvenile salmon habitat to proposed liquefied natural gas facilities in northern BC. Another joint project resulted in a sophisticated tool to identify prime locations for future small-scale hydroelectric projects. Meanwhile, a long-term study of 50 watersheds in BC’s Great Bear Rainforest has demonstrated the impacts of salmon on terrestrial ecosystems, important for evidence-based ecosystem-based management.
All of the group’s activities have benefited from its deep engagement with First Nations and government agencies, as well as industry, environmental groups, and researchers from other universities.
The E2O has become a hub for linking science to real world problems and solutions, demonstrating how researchers with diverse skill-sets who are united by a common motivation can work together to achieve innovation for the benefit of society.
Q & A with E2O
What motivates you as a researcher?
Côté: All of us are intensely curious about how nature works and we share a desire to make the natural world a better place. This ranges from wondering about species – Why do they do what they do? Look the way they look? – to concern about habitats and ecosystems – What makes them function? What makes them break down? How can we fix them?
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. The global human population has doubled in our lifetime. The fooptprint of the increasingly wealthy and rapidly growing human population means that out footprint is three-time greater than the planet can support. We have clearly overshot many planetary boundaries, on line and in our rivers, lakes and seas. Now the loss of species is at least one-hundred time greater that ever observed in any of the previous mass extinctions.
We are highly motivated to provide a vital and rare window in the state possible futures of the world ecosystems. Waters weaves across our landscapes connecting to the oceans. Animals, especially fishes, swim upwards connecting the oceans, seas and streams, in turn, back to the land. At the Earth to Ocean Research group we are uniquely placed to reveal the state of our ecosystems and to provide options for the future.How important is collaboration in advancing research?
Collaboration and partnering is very important in advancing research and is what FREDA has always done. Whether it's with community agencies, the government, or fellow academics, gaining other perspectives does challenge your own thinking and results in stronger, more innovative and effective research outcomes.
If you could sum up the value of university research in a word, what would it be?
Côté: Objectivity. Academic research gives all of 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 always let the facts and results 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.
Dulvy: Earth to Ocean scientists rang some of the first alarm bells on the effect of climate change. Dr Isabelle Cote revealed how climate change, disease, invasive species, and overfishing has flattered Caribeban coral reefs. Dr John Reynolds showed how rapidly fishes were moving northward, and Nick Dulvy showed how they were deepening to escape climate change. Both together 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 mind-shift in major institutions, not least the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The work was so controversial that the US government, then under the control of George W. Bush, censured the findings.
Putting one’s work out into the world often requires a leap of courage. Where do you find your courage?
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 university research/innovation over the next 50 years?
Dulvy: The fact that SFU is leading the charge in recognizing the value of ‘engaging the world’. This rapidly shifts what we reward academics for. It creates the space for people like use, those that go beyond the data to figure out what it means for the ecology of the earth and the people that live on our planet. Traditionally academics were rewarded based on the number and quality of scientific outputs. SFU, by setting the vision of “enagaging the world”, creates the space where academics are rewarded for outcomes and change rather than outputs.
(Left to right: Dr. Reynolds, Dr. Côté, Dr. Moore, Dr. Dulvy. Not pictured: Dr. Palen.)
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).