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“Our planet is run by the ocean and by its creatures. That’s just a very fundamental thing we need to understand, not just in this country, but everywhere.”

Interview with Boris Worm

Boris Worm is a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax and one of the most cited scientists in the field of marine biology and biodiversity. In this exclusive Green Interview, Worm speaks with Silver Donald Cameron about
some of his most influential research on fisheries and oceans. Worm is also a public educator, a regular commentator for CBC Radio on ocean science policy, a participant in such documentaries as Sharkwater and Racing Extinction, and a strong supporter of marine protected areas—large areas of the ocean left free of human interference and allowed to regenerate through the ocean’s natural processes. Since 2013 Boris Worm has also been the scientific director of Ocean School a unique collaboration between Dalhousie’s marine scientists and the National Film Board of Canada.

In this exclusive Green Interview, Worm discusses some of his most highly-cited research, the importance of marine protected areas, and his involvement in Ocean School.

In this exclusive interview with Boris Worm we discuss:

Notable Research on Fish Populations

Worm’s research interests lie in the interconnection and the interaction between people and marine biodiversity and “how patterns of marine biodiversity arise, how hotspots of high species richness are formed and maintained.” But his work has also drawn our attention to biodiversity loss and decline. In 2003 he coauthored a research paper showing that the populations of the world’s large predatory fish, such as tuna, cod, salmon, sharks, and swordfish had declined by 90 percent since the beginning of industrial fishing about 50 years ago. The study, which appeared in the prominent journal Nature, also looked at the historical size of predatory fish in four continental shelf and nine oceanic systems and found that the average sizes of once very large fish had been reduced to one-fifth or one-half of their former size. The authors argued that any attempts to restore present ecosystems to so-called “healthy levels” had to be based on an understanding of what an unexploited system would have looked like.

Three years later he and his wife, Heike Lotze and others, published a paper that found that the loss of species diversity in the ocean was accelerating and that if this trend continued there would be a global collapse of all species currently fished by the year 2048. One of the solutions put forth by Worm and his colleagues was to create marine protected areas where marine life would be allowed to exist without human intrusion.

Marine Protected Areas

Worm tells The Green Interview that marine protected areas are “one of the main tools we’re using now to safeguard ocean ecosystems.” Worm says he is “very hopeful” because studies are showing and documenting the benefits of protected of areas in various places around the world. “We have these big overarching analyses that looked at dozens or hundreds of protected areas and really show how they can benefit people and the environment alike,” he tells Cameron. In a 2006 study, for instance, Worm and others examined 44 marine protected areas and four large-scale fisheries closures worldwide – all were large-scale experiments – to see whether there was any effect on biodiversity and ecosystem services, which includes the provision of seafood. They found that reserves and fisheries closures were associated with increased “species richness” and large increases of fisheries productivity nearby.

But Worm says marine protected areas are not the only tool. “We have to do good management outside of protected areas. Right now protected areas cover between—depending on what you count as a protected area—between 4 and 8 percent of ocean waters so that still leaves 92 to 96 percent of the ocean unprotected by that tool.” Worm says, “The wonderful thing about protected areas is they can really serve as havens for recovery for many, many different species because we’re not trying to manage each species by itself but we’re trying to preserve the whole, as we do on land.”

Ocean School

Since 2013, Worm has been the scientific director of Ocean School, a unique collaboration between Dalhousie’s marine scientists and the National Film Board of Canada. Worm says the goal of the collaboration is to bring “ocean literacy to kids in Canada in the school system but also around the world and to really grow that—train that muscle—grow that sense of awareness, that we live on the blue planet and what does that mean for us individually and collectively.” The Ocean School is inquiry-based learning, “where you’re not just absorbing information like a sponge, you’re more like a predator going out and finding the information that interests you and that you want to work with,” explains Worm. “It’s experiential… we film with 360 cameras where you’re in the environment,” he says. “One of the first things we did was the right whales in the Bay of Fundy—the endangered right whales—and I got an opportunity, with a special permit from Department of Fisheries, to swim along with the right whales and film that experience underwater.”