The health of the Pacific Ocean’s ecosystem is on the minds of hundreds of marine scientists who have gathered in Nanaimo this week.
More than 400 scientists from Canada, the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and Korea decended upon Nanaimo for the Pacific International Council for Exploration of the Seas, an annual general meeting of the North Pacific Marine Science Organization that runs until Sunday (Oct. 20) and is being hosted at the Vancouver Island Conference Centre by the Canadian Government and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Each year scientists from Pacific Rim nations gather to discuss the health of the Pacific Ocean, look at trends in climate, pollution, species health and other factors affecting the ocean’s ecosystem and exchange ideas and research results.
The meetings rotate between participating nations in cities where research facilities are located, such as the Pacific Biological Station. The last PICES conference held in Nanaimo was in 1996.
Since the conferences began in 1992 the discussions have evolved into a format called FUTURE – forecasting and understanding trends, uncertainty and responses in ecosystems.
For 2013 the theme of the conference is communicating forecasts, uncertainty and consequences of ecosystem change.
“The catch phrase is, ‘What are the possible futures for the Pacific,’” said Ian Perry, ecosystems and fisheries oceanography research scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Scientists are currently looking at multiple stressors affecting the marine environment, such as commercial fishing, increasing ocean acidification, pollution and fertilizer run-off, climate change and the transfer of potentially invasive species from one area of the ocean to another.
The conference delegates are also looking at what stressors can be managed versus those that are more difficult to control.
Scientists are paying close attention, for instance, to debris from the 2011 Japan earthquake – some of which is carrying mussels and other species – across the Pacific that is landing on North American shores and could pose threats to local ecosystems. The Japanese government is providing monetary assistance to help with cleanup efforts, Perry said. That represents a stressor that can be managed to some degree. Overall climate change, on the other hand, is something that is proving to something much tougher to get a handle on.
Scientists understand what the other is talking about, but getting those ideas across to laymen in the general public and governments poses a problem that increasingly needs to be solved as the world wrestles with ever more complex ecological issues.
“What’s new is really the emphasis on uncertainty and the human dimension – how does it impact society and coastal communities?” said Jacquelynne King, groundfish research scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Marine Ecosystems and Aquaculture Division. “That is quite new, but also how do we communicate what we find to each other, but more importantly, to non-scientists? That is actually a difficult one for scientists in general. We don’t really know how to tell the general public what our science means and why it’s relevant.”
Part of the problem is scientists can take multiple measurements over time that can point to trends or probabilities that make it difficult to base hard environmental policies on.
For instance, one might record temperatures over a 20-year period that show rising temperatures over that period, but extend the sample time to 40 or 50 years and the data might show a warming trend only 50 per cent of the time.
“Scientists like to speak in probabilities – this could happen or that could happen,” Perry said. “Decision makers like to say, ‘Tell me what’s going to happen. I need to make a decision.’”