In 20 years of travelling to exotic locales and scuba diving on coral reefs teeming with sea life, Boris Worm says his signature moment as a marine biologist came off the north shore of Prince Edward Island.
He and a cameraman from National Geographic got in the water to capture up-close footage of bluefin tuna. Worm was in awe of the large silvery fish darting out of the blue and quickly disappearing. The moment was magic. “I was amazed by their beauty, speed, and grace,” recalls Worm. “Most people know it as sushi, but we don’t really appreciate the animal when it’s on our plate.”
Getting people to make this connection from their daily lives to the ocean is his life’s work. The Dalhousie University professor has become one of the scientific community’s leading advocates for ocean conservation. It’s a job he was born to do.
When Worm was just a toddler growing up in land-locked Frankfurt, Germany, his first word was “wasser,” German for water. “Water is all around us,” says Worm. “In one drop of water, there is more life than you can imagine. When I am swimming underwater, I realize that I am surrounded by life.”
He moved to Hamburg, studied in Kiel, then fell in love with Nova Scotia and settled in Duncan’s Cove with his wife, Heike Lotze, who is also a professor at Dalhousie. The couple shared a Benchley Award for excellence in science last year.
Steven Campana, a scientist who runs the Canadian Shark Research Laboratory at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, has worked with Worm on many research projects and praises him for his science-based advocacy.
“Boris has done an excellent job of putting forward the case for conservation of sharks in Atlantic Canada in particular,” Campana says. Canada might have the longest coastline in the world, but a lot of the decisions made by our government and population don’t reflect how important the ocean’s well being is for all of us, Worm says. One reason might be not enough people live on the coast.
Worm is drawn to the sea and believes all humans are, or would be if they got enough reminders. That’s something he hopes to provide with Ocean School, a collaborative project he’s working on with the National Film Board that will bring interactive educational content into schools. It is expected to launch in late April. “The ocean is part of us,” Worm says. “It’s where we came from, so we feel connected to it.”
Water covers more than two-thirds of the planet and life exists as far down as 11 kilometres, which means that the oceans contain more than 90 per cent of the liveable space on Earth. Worm studies creatures large and small, focusing on how each part of the food chain interacts. More importantly, he takes a great interest in how humans wreak havoc on the planet’s most vital ecosystem.
On a recent field trip to Passamaquoddy Bay in New Brunswick, Worm studied the combined effects of fishing and nutrient pollution. “Everything I studied was affected by human impacts and pollution, all the way from the algae to the fish and whales,” he says.
A study published in the journal Science in January shows that “We may be sitting on a precipice of a major extinction event,” says Douglas J. McCauley, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and one of the authors of the new research (www.sciencemag.org/content/347/6219/1255641).
“We are poised to industrialize the ocean the same way we have on land,” Worm says. “I think we see some of this here [in Atlantic Canada], particularly with the push for deep-water drilling, deep-sea mining and widespread aquaculture.”
One part of the ocean ecosystem that is particularly endangered is sharks and that is why Worm pays such close attention to them. They have been around for 400 million years and have survived four major extinctions, including one that wiped out 90 per cent of life in the oceans. With a track record like that, you’d think the perfect predators of the deep could survive anything, but they might have met their match in short-sighted humans.
“We may lose them just because we’re not careful enough to avoid them,” Worm says at a presentation in October at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History. By-catch is the main threat to sharks, but finning is also a problem. Shark fins are used for a traditional soup served on special occasions in China and some other Southeast Asian countries. As affluence in these countries has increased, so has the demand for shark fins, with little concern for the consequences.
“Some consumers honestly think the fins grow back,” Worm told his audience in October. They don’t. When the fins are cut off, the sharks are thrown back in the water to die.
That angers Art Gaetan, who runs Blue Shark Fishing Charters out of Eastern Passage. “To be doing what they’re doing is appalling, I can’t figure them out,” Gaetan says.
Each year, 100 million sharks are killed through by-catch or shark finning, according to estimates from Worm and colleagues. By-catch is when the commercial fishery intends to catch one species, but ends up catching others by accident.
Canada was among the first countries to ban shark-finning in 1994 and that law is strictly enforced. Campana says 98 per cent blue sharks caught in Atlantic Canada are taken by accident.
“So the shark derbies and recreational shark fishery is a drop in the bucket compared to the by-catch in the commercial fishery, which is primarily the pelagic long-line fishery for swordfish and tuna,” Campana says.
Blue sharks, which are the most common species in our waters, are relatively healthy. Campana’s latest data shows there’s been a modest decline during the last 20 years, but that’s not too bad compared to what is happening to other species and in other countries.
Sharks are the apex predator in the ocean and hold the underwater world in balance because of a phenomenon known as trophic cascades. “Sharks are a key part of the ecosystem because they can control both the abundance and the behaviour of many species. When you lose them, there are ripple effects throughout the ecosystem,” Worm says.
One way to educate people about sharks would be to promote eco-tourism. At the moment, Gaetan’s shark charter is one of the few. Since sharks have been his passion since he was five years old, he operates on a strict catch-and-release basis. When he started his business 15 years ago, he says he needed to be different than everybody else.
“So, I turned my charter boat into a research vessel,” he says. “Every shark is tagged, measured, photographed, hooks removed, and put back.” He estimates he and his customers tag and release about 600 sharks per year, collecting valuable data on these endangered species.
There are no shark diving operations in Nova Scotia, which might be the best way to win people over and help them overcome their fear of sharks. The waters off Nova Scotia have more sharks than most people realize. Blues are the most common species, but there are also great whites, makos, porbeagles and threshers among larger species.
The movie Sharkwater raised awareness of the sharks’ plight and Worm says there are now more people who come to Dalhousie who want to work on sharks than want to work on dolphins. “I never dreamed that would happen,” he says.
As important as it is to nurture a passion for the ocean, it’s vital that science supports the actions, Worm says. He praises the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States for increased transparency, while lamenting a lack of it here in Canada.
“It’s a lot easier now for me to get data from the United States than it is from the Canada,” he says. Budget cuts and a lack of transparency, make his job more difficult. “I’m not one to preach,” he says. “I believe in research and being able to support policies with facts.”
You can help
Buy fish that is caught sustainably, from sellers such as Off the Hook. Some commercial fishing practices are not sustainable because they destroy or damage habitat or have high by-catch rates.
Recycle plastic. Humans produce 280 million tonnes of plastic per year and roughly 10 per cent of that ends up in the world’s oceans. It doesn’t go away, it breaks up, and floats around the ocean in tiny pieces that can get ingested by organisms.
Reduce your use of fossil fuels. Ocean acidification, caused by the build-up of carbon dioxide in the seawater, is a looming threat to oceans.
Tell your Councillor, MLA and MP that marine protected areas and healthy oceans are important to you.