Sustaining Coastal Cities Conference: Dr. Sylvia Earle

A sweet spot for coastal cities

by Angela Herring

In 1967, the year Northeastern’s Marine Sci­ence Center was estab­lished, the world was a dif­ferent place. There were four bil­lion fewer people then, and the global tem­per­a­ture was nearly one degree cooler. Indus­trial fishing prac­tices were still rel­a­tively new, and con­crete sea­walls were sprouting up along coast­lines around the globe. New England’s cod fishery and the world’s coral reefs were both still thriving, and the human com­mu­ni­ties and economies that relied on those species were too.

Nearly a half-​​century later, it’s been shown that ver­tical sea­walls are dam­aging the very coasts they were intended to pro­tect and indus­trial fishing prac­tices threaten many of the world’s fisheries.


At a kickoff event last Wednesday night to the inau­gural Sus­taining Coastal Cities con­fer­ence held at North­eastern, world-​​renowned oceanog­ra­pher Sylvia Earle said “we are living in the sweet spot.” With today’s sci­ence and tech­nology, we are begin­ning to under­stand how our past has impacted our present, and how we can use that infor­ma­tion to steer our­selves toward a more sus­tain­able future, she said.

From left, moderator and National Public Radio journalist Richard Harris, professor Brian Helmuth, professor Stephen Hawkins, assistant professor Daniel Adams, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, and professor Matthew Bracken.

From left, led by moderator and National Public Radio journalist Richard Harris, panelists included Brian Helmuth, professor and director of the Sustainability Science and Policy Initiative at Northeastern University, Stephen Hawkins, professor of Natural Sciences at the University of Southampton, England, Daniel Adams, assistant professor in the School of Architecture at Northeastern University, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, and Matthew Bracken, professor of marine and environmental sciences at Northeastern University.

The day­long con­fer­ence last Thursday wel­comed nearly 200 guests from around the world into Curry Stu­dent Center Ball­room, where Marine Sci­ence Center fac­ulty and their col­leagues from leading national and inter­na­tional marine insti­tutes began a new con­ver­sa­tion about the past, present, and future of marine sys­tems and our place within them.

Located 25 min­utes out­side of Boston, Northeastern’s Marine Sci­ence center offers fac­ulty and stu­dents a unique oppor­tu­nity to study imme­diate human impacts on the urban coastal system. Marine sci­ence researchers are building global col­lab­o­ra­tions and con­ducting ground­breaking research in areas like under­water robotics and the effects of cli­mate change on the globe’s coastlines.

“A sus­tain­able marine system doesn’t just have more fish, but also a healthy human com­mu­nity and economy,” said Larry Crowder, the director of Stan­ford University’s Center for Ocean Solu­tions. He empha­sized the need to con­sider the social-​​ecological system as fully cou­pled between humans and marine species.

The demand for fish as food, which sup­plies 20 per­cent of the world’s pro­tein, will only sky­rocket as our pop­u­la­tion con­tinues to grow, said Steven Gaines, dean of the Bren School of Envi­ron­mental Sci­ence and Man­age­ment at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­fornia Santa Bar­bara. As such, sustainable—if large scale—fishing prac­tices are becoming ever more critical.

But the moti­va­tion to be sus­tain­able is still over­shad­owed by a short-​​sighted economy, said Dan Adams, assis­tant pro­fessor of archi­tec­ture at North­eastern. “The eco­nomic stream is all about con­sump­tion,” he said. “How do we change it to an economy of con­ser­va­tion and preservation?”

Fish are impor­tant way beyond the pro­tein their bodies pro­vide, said Ove Hoegh-​​Guldberg, director of the Global Change Insti­tute and pro­fessor of marine sci­ence at the Uni­ver­sity of Queens­land. They are an inte­gral part of a com­plex ocean system, which pro­duces 50 per­cent of our oxygen and absorbs 30 per­cent of our excess carbon dioxide and 95 per­cent of our excess heat. Threats to fish pop­u­la­tions equal threats to the oceans, and threats to the oceans mean bigger global envi­ron­mental chal­lenges for our chil­dren and grandchildren.

While the out­look seems grim, Steven Hawkins, dean and pro­fessor at the Uni­ver­sity of Southampton, said “small inter­ven­tions can make a huge dif­fer­ence. It doesn’t take much to reestab­lish a failing oyster com­mu­nity: All you need is the right design and the right frame of mind.”

Geoff Trussell, director of the Marine Sci­ence Center and the visionary behind the first-​​of-​​its-​​kind con­fer­ence, said North­eastern is “bringing people to campus who are inter­ested in walking the walk rather than just talking the talk.” With the Urban Coastal Sus­tain­ability Ini­tia­tive, Trussell and his col­leagues are building an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary pro­gram aimed at taking the dis­cus­sion into the com­mu­ni­ties that are directly affected by the issues at hand.

“Our des­tiny is inter­twined with the oceans,” said Hoegh-​​Guldberg. “If they go down, we go down as well.”

Trussell hopes the con­ver­sa­tion started on Thursday will help pre­vent that from happening.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on May 28, 2013.

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