Human health linked to state of the oceans, says US researcher

University of Washington ecologist Professor Phil Levin interviewing a Haida woman on Haida Gwaii off the northwest coast of British Columbia.
SEARCHING FOR A HEALTH LINK: University of Washington ecologist Professor Phil Levin interviewing a Haida woman on Haida Gwaii off the northwest coast of British Columbia.

Humankind is fundamentally connected to the ocean and we need to protect the health of the sea to protect our own health.

That's the view of US ecologist Professor Phil Levin who was the keynote speaker at the three-day Transformed and Transformative Ocean Governance Conference in Port Elizabeth this week.

The event was hosted by NMU's Institute of Coastal & Marine Research, the UK-based One Ocean Hub and the International Ocean Institute.

Levin, who is affiliated to The Nature Conservancy and the University of Washington, said the health benefits of green open spaces for people, had long been recognised with the importance of city parks officially extolled in the US as far back as the 1800s.

There had been a massive resurgence of this recognition in recent times and a swath of scientific studies had been published highlighting the green-health link.

Looking to explore the still limited research around oceans and the blue-health link further, he spent the past decade researching the way of life of the indigenous people in Haida Gwaii, an island archipelago off the North Pacific coast of British Columbia, in Canada.

There he found life revolved around herring, a small marine fish much like the South African sardine, which was the staple food of a multitude of wild predators and the Haida people alike.

The herring and their roe eggs were preyed on by a range of larger fish and marine mammals such as dolphins and whales.

Bears and other terrestrial wildlife ate the roe when it was spawned close to shore.

The Haida, usually the women, rowed out in skiffs to gather the roe spawned on kelp and then returned to dry their hauls on the beach.

It was during this time that they told stories and passed on their culture to their offspring, he explained.

This ancient intricately intertwined system ran parallel with a commercial fishery but the herring population was not impregnable.

In the 1960s it crashed, resulting in a brief commercial herring fishing ban.

The species recovered and the ban was lifted but in the 1990s, due to overfishing, it crashed again.

A ban was reimposed and, although the population took longer to recover, it appeared to do so, and in 2019 authorities proposed that the fishery should be opened again.

The proposal prompted an outcry from the Haida and environmental groups and further scrutiny of the data showed that while herring numbers had risen to sustainable levels over the species's whole range, it had been wiped out in a number of coves, eroding the richness of the harvest.

Besides this scientific evidence of the need for greater scrutiny of sustainability declarations by the authorities, the controversy also brought to the fore why the Haida felt so strongly about the issue, he said.

“It helped answer our initial question to them which was, 'what is health'?

“They gave us answers like, 'health is a healthy ocean where we can take our children to teach them, and where we can undertake traditional harvests to ensure that our culture will continue'.

“One woman told me: 'k'aaw [herring roe] fills my belly but mostly my soul.”

His study prompted an important question,” he said.

“What are appropriate conservation targets in a coupled human-ecological system?

“This is not only a central question for Haida Gwaii, but one that conservation scientists increasingly face worldwide.

“Clearly, the task of incorporating cultural dimensions in conservation will take effort, but it is central for building successful conservation targets that endure.”

His research had shown him clearly that protecting the integrity of the ocean was vital, he said.

“We are all connected to the ocean and by ensuring its health we ensure our own.”