Dangerous waters

How an internationally renowned marine scientist is leading the world in finding solutions to a rapidly changing ocean

Date published: 2024-06-07 10:30:00

Coral reef in the Philippines

Coral reef in the Philippines.

Photo: William Cheung

Climate change, pollution and overfishing are all plunging our oceans into increasingly dangerous waters.

“We are at a crossroads and we need to take urgent actions to bend the curve and reverse the declining trends in our oceans,” says world renowned marine scientist, William Cheung, Professor and Director of the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at The University of British Columbia (UBC) and Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Ocean Sustainability and Global Change.

Cheung, who grew up in a coastal community in Hong Kong, says he’s seen firsthand the changes in marine ecosystems due to overfishing and coastal habitat changes. “My experience with the ocean is much different than what my mother, father and grandparents experienced.”

Integrated seaweed and abalone aquaculture in Xiamen, China

Integrated seaweed and abalone aquaculture in Xiamen, China.

Photo: William Cheung

“The ocean is warming and we are seeing a long-term decline in marine life on a global scale,” warns Cheung. “We’ve lost at least half of the fish stock biomass since the 1950s. The majority of the global fish stock is being over or fully exploited. Plastic and chemical pollutants are affecting the health of marine life. I want my nephews and the younger generation to be able to enjoy the marine biodiversity and seafood my grandparents, parents and I once enjoyed.”

Cheung says the numbers are a wake-up call. The ocean, he says, absorbs approximately 25 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from human activities along with more than 90 percent of the excess heat generated by those emissions. That is making the ocean warmer and more acidic, impacting marine biodiversity and the benefits that they provide to humans. Without the oceans absorbing that heat, the world would be much less habitable for humans and many other species. Oceans are saving us but at an incredible cost to marine life and coastal communities.

“The changing ocean is not sustainable for marine life and many dependent human communities,” says Cheung. “The alarm bells are loud and clear. We need to start taking action immediately.”

Food-Climate-Biodiversity Nexus

Through his CRC program, Cheung, named by Reuters as one of the world’s top 20 most influential climate scientists, is in pursuit of uncovering how the ocean can sustain life and support human well-being and food security while advancing climate mitigation and safeguarding biodiversity. It’s what he calls the “food, climate change and biodiversity nexus.”

“These three components – food, climate and biodiversity – are all interconnected,” explains Cheung. “We need healthy oceans to support sustainable food. Healthy oceans also support the mitigation and adaptation of climate change. Managing seafood production from fisheries and aquaculture effectively will also help restore and rebuild biodiversity and fish stocks. Our goal, through our research, is to find solutions to these three global challenges.”

Global-scale project

Artisanal fishing boats landing their catches in Cape Coast, Ghana

Artisanal fishing boats landing their catches in Cape Coast, Ghana.

Photo: William Cheung

As part of that research, Cheung is the director of a six-year SSHRC-funded Partnership Grant, Solving Sustainability Challenges at the Food-Climate-Biodiversity (FCB) Nexus. The project brings together world-leading scholars and practitioners from academic institutes, inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations, and government agencies to conduct research, examine policies and study human actions at the intersection of achieving food security, climate change mitigation and biodiversity conservation goals.

The FCB study is structured around five case studies around the world. In British Columbia, teams are exploring how reconciliation with Indigenous coastal communities can achieve food security and sovereignty to counteract the impacts of climate change on their traditional seafood, including the decline of salmon populations. In China, the team is examining the climate, biodiversity and food security benefits of farming seaweed. In Costa Rica, researchers are investigating nature-based solutions to manage pollution and climate change to support small-scale coastal fisheries and biodiversity in the Gulf of Nicoya. In Ghana and Nigeria, teams are examining the benefits of sustainable fisheries management for coastal livelihood and food security and climate adaptation. In the Netherlands, researchers are studying the benefits of nature-inclusive food systems for both humans and biodiversity.

“These case studies will help advance a mixture of research methods, including scenario development, modelling and decision and policy analyses, to explore solution options to address the food-climate-biodiversity nexus” adds Cheung. “Our goal is to develop diverse visions and pathways towards a desirable and sustainable ocean future.”

Policy implications

Cheung’s research has helped shape policy at the national and international levels. His scientific data and projections are often used in international negotiations and discussions on climate change through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Over the last decade, Cheung has worked with several international organizations including the World Bank and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to help them assess the impacts of climate change on marine resources.

“A large part of my research is driven by the needs of policy, of countries and local communities,” explains Cheung. “I want my work to contribute to a better future for our oceans and for people around the world.”

Want to learn more?

Check out UBC’s research initiative The Sea Around Us, that assesses the impact of fisheries on the marine ecosystems of the world. Listen to a conversation here with William Cheung on the impact climate change is having on marine ecosystems.