Virtual Reality: Grad Student Perspectives on Taking Conferences Online

by Kayla Hamelin, Caelin Murray, Shannon Landovskis

Advantages of Online Conferences – Shannon

As a Masters student during the COVID pandemic, the majority of the conferences that I have attended have been virtual, excluding one in-person conference, the Canadian Conference for Fisheries Research (CCFFR), in January 2020. As someone new to the world of conferences, it has been fascinating to see how different conferences approached the transition to virtual and what I found beneficial as a student.

The most obvious benefit is accessibility. Virtual conferences have lower registration fees and no travels costs associated with them, which means students are able to attend more conferences or higher cost conferences (i.e. international). Being able to attend more conferences means students are able to gain more experience and attend more diverse conferences, broadening our minds and networks.

Once you are ‘at’ a conference, there are benefits to the virtual format as well. Typically at a conference, presentations are split into different themed sessions. Often, there may be more than one talk you want to see during the same timeslot but in a different session. In-person, this means leaving the room in the middle of presentations to rush into a different room, but virtually, it is very easy to jump back and forth and make sure you don’t miss anything! As well, some virtual conferences, such as CCFFR 2021, had all of the recorded talks posted in advance, making it very easy for attendees to watch every single talk they were interested in. Another benefit to virtual conferences is pre-recording your own presentation. While pre-recording does present its own unique set of challenges, it can reduce stress and nerves on the day of your presentation. Instead of trying to listen to presentations, but secretly stressing about my own later that day, I have been able to really focus on what I am listening to because I know my talk is already ‘done’.

Some of the different approaches that conference organizers have taken when making the switch to virtual work better than others. Pre-recording talks is a great way to ensure fewer technical issues throughout the conference, while allowing for live question and answer sessions to ensure there are still interactions between presenters and attendees. Using CCFFR 2021 as an example again (there was a lot that they did very well!), instead of 3 minutes of questions following each presentation, all presentations were watched in advance and then there were live 1.5 hour question and answer sessions with multiple presenters. This format allowed for presenters who spoke under the same theme to engage with each other while answering questions, which was led to some fantastic discussions! This did work differently depending on the number of presenters in the session, but from my own question and answer  session, it definitely brought out conversations that may not have occurred during a 3-minute period following the presentation of one individual. Finally, CCFFR 2021 also included poster presenters the question and answer sessions. I have found that posters can easily be overlooked in a virtual setting and those presenting them often do not get the same feedback and interest as they would have in-person. By including poster presenters in the question and answer sessions, attendees were able to engage with them easier and the virtual experience gained by the presenters was enhanced.

Disadvantages of Online Conferences – Caelin

As a Master student who began their degree just 2 months before the COVID-19 pandemic I have been strictly limited to virtual conferences. While online conferences have provided many opportunities to students during the pandemic, I have identified some areas where they may have been more stressful or could be improved. 

 Virtual conferences during the COVID-19 pandemic presented some challenges for students: 


In some cases, virtual conferences increased stress for students more than non-virtual conferences. For example, some online conferences allowed for pre-recorded talks in efforts to meet the needs of attendees working from home. However, prerecorded presentations increased pressure on students who felt compelled to create an absolutely perfect presentation for submission. Second, student attendees felt pressure to maintain a normal workday during the conference period, especially when conference times were outside of their time zone. Finally, online conferences that did not play pre-recorded presentations during regular conference times involved an elevated workload relative to in-person conferences because there was a need to watch pre-recorded presentations in the online gallery before attending the live sessions, doubling the time spent in “conference mode”. Furthermore, larger conferences that held many talks devoted entire days to the question-and-answer periods which demanded a greater time and energy commitment of attendees and presenters. 

Less networking opportunities and engagement:

In some instances, virtual conferences resulted in less networking and engagement opportunities for students. For example, whether a presentation was pre-recorded and played live during conference time or archived to watch at your leisure, the online platform did not provide the same networking experience for students. Online socials were less engaging as there was no need to travel and create separation from our regular workday which allows students to be fully present and engaged in the conference and networking opportunities. Additionally, online socials often had lower attendance or were too late in the evening if they occurred outside of our time zone. 

Posters may get less attention virtually than in non-virtual settings:

Students with poster presentations faced challenges in sharing their work and engaging with others compared to students delivering oral presentations. In some cases, poster presentations were shared in live 10-minute sessions with a total of 4 posters which made it difficult for viewers to read font or see certain figures and pictures at a reduced size. Additionally, poster sessions often experienced few if any questions in most live sessions.

Time zones:

Time zones calculations made it more challenging to plan session attendance and maximize participation.

Putting It Into Practice: Planning an Online Conference – Kayla

After several years of attending in-person conferences, and transitioning to presenting at and attending several virtual conferences this past year, I set out to plan a symposium myself, along with a team of fellow biology grad students at Dalhousie. Our event – the annual Lett Symposium – was a 1-day event for biology grad students to share their work and celebrate research achievements with colleagues and faculty. In the past, the symposium took place in person on campus, so we had to get creative to come up with a plan that would allow for a smooth-running event and foster a supportive, collegial atmosphere.

Although there are mixed opinions on the benefits of pre-recorded versus live talks in a virtual conference setting, the planning team decided to accept pre-recorded talks that would be shared during the conference sessions, followed by short periods of live Q&A. This allowed conference organizers to have all of the materials prepared for the day ahead of time and may have reduced anxiety for students who struggle with public speaking or presenting to a live audience. However, the live Q&A following each video still allowed for some interaction with the audience and there was no added workload associated with browsing a library of videos in advance of the conference day. Furthermore, the Lett Symposium typically involves awarding prizes for student work, and pre-recorded talks allowed the judging team to get a head start on reviewing the submitted materials. Although most students seemed satisfied with the pre-recording protocol, on the day of the conference, sharing the videos and associated audio created its own suite of technical challenges for the session moderators. Troubleshooting was relatively quick and simple, and both the moderators and attendees handled glitches with grace, but it highlighted that there is no perfect recipe for a virtual conference format without hiccups!

Another challenge in this virtual world is how to handle a poster session. We decided to offer a graphical abstract gallery in lieu of a poster session. Graphical abstracts are often requested by academic journals these days, and are designed to largely “stand alone” as a communication tool. This seemed like a great option for students to practice their science communication skills, while at the same time accommodating more projects than our oral presentation sessions would allow and offering flexibility in how students preferred to share their work. To encourage engagement with the graphical abstracts, and attendance of all presentation sessions (plus, to offer more rewards for student presenters!), we offered “People’s Choice Award” prizes in addition to awards chosen by faculty judges. We offered the link to the graphical abstract gallery in the conference “chat” throughout the day, along with links to polls to vote for favourite presentations and graphics. This seemed to be an effective and fun way to ensure attendees engaged with the full range of content offered.

Finally, perhaps the most difficult aspect was fostering a social atmosphere. We began the day with a Code of Conduct, which set the tone for the level of respect, tolerance, and kindness we expected from all participants. While webcams and microphones were expected to be turned off during presentations, we encouraged attendees to come on screen to chat and “hang out” during breaks and over lunch hour. Granted, with a relatively small group of ~50, this was more feasible than it would be for a large, national (or international) conference. Finally, rather than arranging a separate social event to follow the conference, we allowed attendees to once again socialize within the existing conference platform following the awards ceremony to celebrate with their colleagues. Keeping the day relatively short (1 day, with programming 9:30 am – 4:30 pm, a 1-hour lunch, and breaks between every session) helped to ensure that energy and enthusiasm levels remained relatively high for many attendees.


To say this past year has been a learning experience, for conference planners and attendees alike, would be a huge understatement. Hopefully lessons learned during this transition to virtual meetings will yield future (hybrid?) events which offer more connection and collaboration than ever before, while incorporating the attention to accessibility that the disabled community has been demanding for years. For the time being… see you on Zoom!

On this Treaty Day, I commit to…..

By Megan Bailey Lab

On Monday, September 28th, my son came home from grade 1 with an exciting announcement: his class had earned enough gems in their gem jar to be awarded a pajama day! He informed us we were to send him to school on Wednesday in his pjs. But actually the school had other plans. During the day, his teacher had sent an email home that Wednesday was Orange Shirt Day, and that PJ day would be moved to Thursday. It is hard to speak to a six year old about what Orange Shirt Day is for, and why it is more important than pajama day. How much do I tell him? Where do I start?

But what I realized was that even though it was a hard conversation to have, it was the right conversation to have. I also wondered if my lack of knowledge around the colonial history of Canada growing up was because my parents were too afraid to have the hard conversations. Or maybe because they didn’t know about our history either because their parents were too afraid. Today (October 1) is Treaty Day in Nova Scotia. A day that kicks off Mi’kmaq History Month. A day where we are meant to honour the relationships between Mi’kmaq and Nova Scotians. Today I pledge to have the hard conversations with my kids, my extended family, my students, my colleagues, my community, and myself.

This year, 2020, Treaty Day happens to follow two weeks of unrest in the province. As a lab, we have been discussing these developments. Some of us work directly with Indigenous partners and commercial fish harvesters in our work. Some of us work with national governments on developing equitable approaches to resource allocation. Some of us work with the corporate seafood sector on social and environmental responsibility. Because our work often intersects with rights, equity and justice, and because we are all humans sharing space on Turtle Island, we decided for Treaty Day we would share the things we are thinking about as a lab, or as individuals, and the kinds of actions we commit to taking. These actions we commit to taking so that the current and next generations can live in a more educated, more compassionate, and more just world. What follows are individual contributions from lab members. 

One of my favourite drawings by my son, Chris, is his version of the logo for Apoqnmatulti’k (we help each other). See more about this collaborative project here


Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the axiom “the more you know, the more you realize you do not know”. I work on Indigenous fisheries management for my PhD, and I can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking I know all there is to know about the state of Indigenous fisheries in Atlantic Canada. The past few weeks have reminded me that I, a white settler academic, understand little about the lived – daily, visceral – experience of colonized Indigenous peoples or their continuing struggle to have their rights recognized. How could I? I will never experience systemic racism directed at myself and my community, nor did my ancestors. We often characterize “not knowing” something as a weakness, particularly in academia; after all, we are meant to be experts. But of course it is impossible to know everything. Knowledges are distributed among us, held communally, and shared. I think that what I am learning is when to recognize the limits of my expertise, and when it is therefore time to stop talking and to listen to Indigenous voices.  

In my own work, I am trying to emulate this principle in 3 ways. First, by aligning my research questions with needs and priorities that have been identified by Indigenous organizations in Nunatsiavut, where I work. Indigenous-led research is a step in the path towards self-determination, and so I commit to hearing their research questions and helping to find answers. Secondly, I commit to centering Indigenous voices in my work. This will happen in many ways – through the prioritization of Indigenous scholars in my citations, by replicating Indigenous sources and study participants in their own words wherever possible, and through creative means like the inclusion of art and other media of expression. Finally, I will continue to return to these reminders of what I still do not know, and what I cannot claim to own, so that I can share my knowledge with others where I can, and use my platform to create space for Indigenous experts where I do not hold the answers. 

Rachael, Melina and Felipe landing in Nain last year for field work, Photo: Rachael


I joined the Bailey lab this September, as a postdoctoral fellow, to begin work in Arctic Canada. My background includes work with Indigenous fishers in New Zealand and underrepresented farmers in California, on strategies to promote community development. In light of the difficulties Mi-kmaq, Nunatsiavut and other Indigenous groups have faced in their attempts to use their treaty rights to support Indigenous fishers, I have been thinking through strategies governments elsewhere have adopted to support historically disadvantaged groups. These strategies include processes related to how: (1) research is funded and evaluated; (2) commercial business licenses are allocated; and (3) commodities are certified. Over the next several months, I hope to better understand the specific development constraints Indigenous groups in Canada face, to help illuminate which – if any – of these processes can be developed to advance Indigenous interests in Canada. 


There was a running joke in my family that I made it to Africa before I ever saw Vancouver Island. As a kid growing up in Vancouver, BC this didn’t make a lot of sense geographically. But it was true. And, as much as I remember vibrant sunsets and thrilling encounters with African wildlife, I remember other things too. I was ten years old when I visited South Africa in 1999, less than a decade after their national Apartheid legislation was repealed and just as Nelson Mandela’s term as the first President of South Africa was ending. And it is the memories I have related to these circumstances that have lingered the longest and left the greatest impression on my life.

I remember being in Cape Town and seeing faded remnant signs for ‘blacks’ and ‘whites only’ at building entrances and water fountains. I remember visiting a museum on the history of segregation in District Six, part of the city where tens of thousands of Coloured residents were removed by force by the prevailing government regime in the 1960s and 1970s. I remember looking through the bars of Nelson Mandela’s two-metre wide jail cell on Robben Island, a place he spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. I remember a quiet scene at dusk, looking down a street in Soweto, a township of Johannesburg. Here, a young boy named Hector Pieterson was shot and killed by police during a student protest against the introduction of the Afrikaans language in local schools. I remember my Mom reading aloud passages of Long Walk to Freedom and Cry, the Beloved Country as we sat together in bed.

As strange as it seemed to my family that I had travelled halfway around the world before seeing the capital city of my home province, in retrospect it is equally strange that, as a child, my perception of racism and segregation was that it was something that happened outside of Canada. It was something that happened in far-off places. While I learned first-hand about the crimes against humanity that occurred in South Africa before I was a teenager, it was not until my mid-20s that I started to learn the truth of similar injustices incurred by Indigenous Peoples at the hands of colonial immigrants and the Canadian government throughout history. The story told in my elementary and high school classes was incomplete and, as I am learning now, biased. And it is these biases that perpetuate systemic racism in our country today.

Although I grew up largely ignorant to the true history of my country that does not mean I should stay ignorant to it. In fact, it is imperative that I do not. I accept that there is no quick or easy fix but, fortunately, knowledge acquisition in a life-long process. And with regard to understanding the history of Canada and working toward a less prejudiced and more inclusive future, I acknowledge I am only just beginning.


I moved to Atlantic Canada this summer to join Megan’s lab as a Postdoctoral Fellow. With a background in economics, this is my first exposure where issues with Indigenous fisheries intersect with my professional career. My training in natural resource economics was quite removed from social “real-life” issues. I was taught to strictly focus on topics such as stock management, and abstract theory such as “utility maximization” while thinking of equity topics as “beyond the realm of our research,” aka somebody else’s problem. 

As a result, I have over the years trained myself to mentally separate “work life” and “personal life.” But this mindset is damaging, and there are two ways I can combat this within my circle of influence. On a personal level, I am going to keep learning about the challenges facing Mi-kmaq, Nunatsiavut and other Indigenous groups as a direct result of systemic racism. I am reading more indigenous media content to gain a balanced view and not one that only perpetuates white supremacy. On a professional level, Megan’s lab, led by Megan and supported by all her wonderful students, is showing me that I don’t have to pretend Indigenous issues do not exist in economics. Instead, it is my job to contribute to the literature and include the discussion in my research. Only then will my research be able to inform policy that truly addresses equitable issues. 


Today, on Treaty Day, I am reflecting on why, as a white settler, I have heard and participated in so few conversations on treaty education, Indigenous rights, and even the history of colonization. There are certainly many, many factors at play here, but the one that resonates with me the most is fear and discomfort around saying the wrong thing.

A common theme in 2020 has been the notion of “impact over intention”. I used to think that if you said something that hurt someone, but you had meant well, then it was okay – it was just an accident or a misunderstanding. But as I have grown, my feelings on this have changed. I do still believe that your intentions matter, just not more than your impact. As individuals, we are responsible for the impact of our words and actions. But then I think: how can I know what impact I will have? Every single person is different. Every single person has different experiences and personalities. How can I possibly know what impact I will have on someone? These thoughts swirl around inside my head and my fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, all too often, results in my doing nothing at all. However, my reflections on this have since expanded: yes, as individuals, we are responsible for the impact of our words and actions, but we are also responsible for the impact of our silence and inaction. In other words, doing nothing counts as doing something.

I read something not long ago that said that it is a privilege to be able to decide if you want to engage in an uncomfortable conversation or not. This really struck me. It was a component of privilege that I had never identified in myself – the ability to choose comfort instead of discomfort (alternatively, to choose comfort instead of courage). As a white settler in Canada, I get to decide if and when I want to open myself up to criticism, if I want to make myself vulnerable, if I want to stand up for what is right or if I want to sit silently by so that I don’t risk “saying the wrong thing”. Because the unfortunate truth is, if I speak up, then I will sometimes say the wrong thing. And then I am fully responsible for the harm I cause. However, I no longer use that as an excuse for my silence. Instead, I work to reduce my chances of harming someone. For me, this entails reflecting on when I should act as opposed to when I should sit back and listen, continuously educating myself, and listening to others when they share experiences with me. Then, when the time comes for action, I am better able to speak up. If I say or do something that results in harm to another person, I apologize wholeheartedly, thank them for using their time and energy to tell me, and then take some time to reflect on what I could do differently in the future. I do not find this easy and I certainly do not find it comfortable, but this is more important than my comfort. This is something I have been working towards and will continue to work towards. My goals are that my impact and my intention will align more often than not, that I will have the courage to graciously accept responsibility whenever I cause someone harm, and that I will never stop trying.

This Treaty Day, I am committing to educating myself and engaging in the conversations necessary for the pursuit of reconciliation. I acknowledge that this will be a lifelong process.


In my educational experience growing up, the acknowledgement of present-day Canada as unceded Indigenous land was virtually non-existent. As a white settler, I remember learning about Indigenous peoples in elementary school, but primarily in history class. First Nations, Inuit, and Métis individuals and communities were introduced in past tense. I recall having to choose a First Nations group to study for a class project and I chose the Beothuk of Newfoundland – a group of people who literally no longer exist because of European colonialism. But again, that was in the past.

This morning, celebrated Inuit throat singer and author Tanya Tagaq tweeted, “I went to residential school. The last one closed in 1996. This isn’t deep history this is our present day.” I was in public school myself in 1996.

Recent conflicts should be a sharp reminder to us all that colonialism is not a shameful part of our history, but remains woven into the fabric of our society. The reality is that there are important opportunities now, and on an ongoing basis, to both know better and, consequently, to do better as settler Canadians. I have been working hard to listen, to learn, and to act accordingly, both as a researcher and as an inhabitant of this land. This Treaty Day, I commit to finding more opportunities to pursue reconciliation, and I am grateful for the support of our lab group in this important journey.


Coming from the Maldives to Canada, it was a shock to me on a personal level to see and witness the struggles of Indigenous communities. We only hear good things about Canada and never about the injustices.

I did a book review on “The truth that Wampum Tells” by Gehl, L in my first year of my PhD. It was totally an eye opener about the struggles of Indigenous communities. The book narrated the first 15 years of the Algonquin land claims process and brought light to the complexity and unfairness in the process. The Government of Canada used every tactic in negotiations to delay or disrupt the process such as setting unrealistic timelines, creating barriers for women to participate, influencing the electoral process by appointing key people, frustrate the opponent in the negotiation table by creating divisions through lack of community consultations, misleading information about the consultation dates and processes, destroying information vital for the electoral process and lack of transparency and accountability of the process.  Her quote in the book, still shocks me – “Canada is a heartless nation state”

Relating to my research, the Mi’kmaw fishery struggles have similar characteristics to the struggles of developing states in the Indian Ocean. Though, the developing states have the right for the fish in their waters under international law, for the purpose of allocation of rights the colonizers have refused to accept this. The colonizers believe what they have caught in the past and got rich has to be accounted for when future rights are allocated as well.

I aspire through my research and my engagements to empower myself and others to fight for inclusivity, equality, fairness and justice.

Five Islands Lighthouse in Nova Scotia in ancestral and unceded territory of Mi’kmaq People. (Photo: Sinan)


I moved to Atlantic Canada in the beginning of 2019 to work with fisheries management in indigenous communities of Northern Labrador, Nunatsiavut. 

Makkovik, Nunatsiavut, 2019 , Photo: Melina

Trained as an environmental and resource economist and working with fisheries in (mostly the European part of) the Arctic, I knew very little on what to expect or how to frame my research questions in a manner valued by resource users – fishers in these communities. Traditional academic training – western science – does not adequately prepare you for that. 

Although broadly familiar with resource-related challenges across Indigenous communities of the Arctic, from all the time I’ve invested in Arctic fora, conferences and meetings, it was only when I started working for this project and found myself physically in Atlantic Canada, that I realized how arduous this was going to be. 

I was aware of the marginalization of Indigenous peoples, their disempowerment and lack of opportunities compared to non-Indigenous resource users. What I wasn’t aware of was all the effort that goes into the reconciliation process on behalf of the federal government in Canada. I felt, and still do, that Canada is way better positioned than a lot of other countries globally to address the rights of marginalized resource users. Almost two years after working in this project, I feel confident that the amount of effort is disproportionate to intended outcomes, especially with respect to how poorly integrated Indigenous rights continue to be in resource management. 

With the recent incidents in Mi’kmaq lobster fisheries in Nova Scotia, that I was previously unaware of, I feel that a) much more work remains to be done on reconciling conflicting user interests b) there is a need for a greater recognition that natural sciences alone can not offer solutions to these problems/conflicts c)  efforts to reconcile conflicting interests should be ongoing and open to all, if fisheries are to be managed for the greater public good d) ensure that all voices can be heard for the sake of those without stakes in the fishery who wish to form an unbiased opinion (all users and rightsholders, indigenous communities and scholars, natural and social scientists). 

For additional media links related to our lab members and moderate livelihood Treaty Rights see:

Flare Magazine

CBC news coverage

Ocean People

Guest Blog by Kayla Hamelin, PhD Student

Introduction to ocean literacy
Ocean literacy has been defined as “understanding the ocean’s influence on you and your influence on the ocean”. Having worked as a science communicator for a variety of not-for-profit organizations, I have seen the interest in ocean literacy increase markedly in the environmental education community in recent years. A team of researchers, scholars, educators, and practitioners in the United States formalized this interest in ocean engagement by developing the Ocean Literacy Framework, based on seven principles of ocean literacy , representing key concepts from ocean science. For example, Principle #1 states that Earth has one big ocean that has many features. Principle #5 describes that the ocean supports a great diversity of life and ecosystems.

National and international governing bodies are now incorporating goals of enhancing ocean literacy into marine policy around the world. However, increasingly, there is acknowledgement that ocean literacy is not simply a matter of being knowledgeable about marine science, but rather must encompass a more holistic perspective on our social, economic, cultural, and personal ties to the ocean. As a result, several countries, including Canada, have invested in recent years in developing customized national frameworks that reflect their unique priorities and values. As an interdisciplinary researcher interested in how resource users engage in fisheries science and management, I have a particular interest in ocean literacy that is place-based and rooted in experiential knowledge and local perspectives. To me, ocean literacy means understanding and appreciating the science and socio-cultural significance of our ocean. Ocean literacy must include and respect different ways of “knowing” the ocean – for example, the traditional ecological knowledge and local knowledge held by those who live and work near (or on) the sea.

Contemplating my own ocean literacy
Being engaged in discussions about ocean literacy requires me to consider my own relationship with the ocean. I am aware of the various technical ways that I impact the ocean (e.g., consumption of seafood, production of waste) and ways that the ocean impacts me (e.g., climate regulation, oxygen production). However, in contemplating the socio-cultural dimensions of ocean literacy, I must ask myself more specifically, how do I know and relate to the sea? As someone working on my third post-secondary degree focused on marine sciences, surely I am ocean literate? An expert, even? However, I didn’t grow up by the sea. I was raised far from the coast on the shores of Georgian Bay in Ontario. In many ways my hometown feels like a coastal place, but it is missing the distinct salty smell and the stiff sea breezes.

I have often asked myself where my fascination for the sea came from. Prior to beginning university studies in marine biology, my exposure to the ocean was during a single childhood trip to the Maritimes, and thus my passion does not originate from a place of comfort or familiarity, but rather a sense of awe, reverence, and respect for the majesty and mystery of the ocean. Nonetheless, I think that I was already primed to fall in love with the sea, based on my deep attachment to animals and nature. I imagine that some who grow up by the coast may view the sea through a less romantic lens, as a source of food or a means to support their livelihoods. However, I think there is something universal in the draw of the sea, given that many people with various proximities to the coast find spiritual and cultural significance in bodies of water.

Over the past several years of my career, I would spend a handful of weeks every summer working on the ocean conducting scientific field surveys to monitor and track endangered species. This gave me insight into life at sea that I could have never learned from a text book. I am now intimately familiar with the coastal environment of Nova Scotia, and its birds, fish, jellyfish, turtles, sharks, and marine mammals. I am also familiar with the set-up and operation of lobster fishing vessels, a dominant fishery along the Atlantic coast of Canada. After living in Nova Scotia for more than a decade, I have explored innumerable rugged cliffs and sandy beaches, salt marshes and tidal flats. Despite these experiences, I can still relate to the disconnect that many Canadians may feel from the ocean. Most of the year, I am an urban resident of downtown Halifax. If I’m being honest, on a day-to-day basis, my life doesn’t always feel particularly tied to the ocean. My life isn’t governed by the wind and the waves. I don’t know off the top of my head when the next high tide will arrive. I am grateful to have a view of an inlet called the Northwest Arm from my office at Dalhousie, but generally, I am an ocean lover who must seek out connections to the marine environment.

During the COVID-19 lockdown, I spent a great deal of time thinking about human relationships with the ocean and strengthening my own sometimes-elusive marine connections. Thankfully, we are enjoying more freedom in recent weeks here in Nova Scotia, but for months, I had little contact with the outside world aside from my daily walks in my neighbourhood. Living downtown in an urban centre, I sought soothing natural environments to calm and refresh myself during those difficult times. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was drawn to the sea. I am so grateful to live with the Halifax waterfront boardwalk, an urban wilderness area called Point Pleasant Park, and the Northwest Arm within walking distance. There is a growing body of literature on the mental and physical health benefits of “blue spaces”. During the COVID-19 lockdown, I experienced and witnessed the power of this effect, both during my own excursions to bodies of water within Halifax, and also in watching how my fellow city residents were drawn to these environments. It was a fantastic opportunity to reflect on the important cultural and health-related ecosystem services provided by our ocean, which often get lost in technical discussions around marine resource management.

The national conversation on ocean literacy
My thoughts about ocean connections culminated recently in my participation in the Canadian Ocean Literacy Coalition national workshop series – a fantastic opportunity to discuss ocean literacy with other scholars, stakeholders, and practitioners from across the country. The Canadian Ocean Literacy Coalition (COLC) is a national group of ocean literacy leaders, formed in 2018 to guide the development of a national framework and implementation strategy for enhancing and promoting ocean literacy in Canada. Their work takes a holistic approach, in which ocean literacy is seen to encompass ocean knowledge, ocean values, and ocean actions. Over the past year or so, research has been conducted by members of the coalition to “establish a baseline seascape” for the status of ocean literacy in Canada. In June of this year, there were 5 regional workshops (Pacific, Inuit Nunangat, Atlantic, St. Lawrence, and Inland Canada) and a national workshop to recap results from the past year’s research, disseminated in regional and national reports.

I attended the regional workshops for the Atlantic and St. Lawrence regions (where I have lived and worked), in addition to the national workshop, and I thoroughly enjoyed the discussions that took place. There were a few key messages that stuck with me. First, nationally, there seems to be an interest in moving away from the term “ocean literacy”, despite its recognition and use elsewhere in the world. Many respondents to the COLC’s surveys and interviews noted that the term is too abstract or academic. “Literacy” often has a deficit-based definition, and it may suggest a link to the formal education system, which makes the term problematic for those who lack access to education or who define expertise in different ways. Crucially, the term “ocean literacy” is difficult to translate into other languages, notably French, and is a concept that is not compatible with the world views of many Indigenous peoples in Canada, which means that it may not be helpful in establishing a national unifying framework. Alternative language is necessary.

The second key conclusion from the national workshop that I found important was the need to move beyond ocean-specific content and instead draw upon the idea of an “ocean continuum” – comprising land, water, ocean, sea, and ice. As someone who grew up relatively far from the ocean, but close to other major bodies of water, this strikes me as a crucial message, and a unifying theme to which all Canadians may be able to connect. After all, the ocean area over which Canada has jurisdiction is equivalent to 55% of our landmass and 12% of the surface area of our country is covered with freshwater (1/5 of the world’s supply). There is truly something for everyone within Canada’s hydrosphere! Like most people from Ontario, I do not instinctively consider myself to have grown up in a coastal province, but Ontario does in fact have marine coastline in the north along Hudson Bay and James Bay. Expanding our geographic perspectives (from coast to coast to coast – and beyond!) and leveraging the strong links within the water cycle can form critical components of a national ocean strategy aligned with the values and experiences of most Canadians. Furthermore, this narrative can be linked with a broader “ocean-water-climate-nature” narrative to synergize with environmental initiatives more broadly.

Finally, there were some unique insights from the Atlantic regional workshop, which I will keep in mind as I move forward with my research. Regional strengths for ocean literacy in Atlantic Canada were identified to be 1) Relationships and collaboration, 2) Place-based knowledge and experiential learning, 3) Ocean awareness through raising awareness about plastic pollution, 4) Women leaders, 5) Two-eyed seeing, and 6) Workforce development. These findings were consistent with my experiences living in Nova Scotia, working within academic, government, and NGO spheres. Moving forward, I recognize that we are stronger working together and must allow for diverse voices to be heard at decision-making tables, in an environment based on trust and mutual respect for different perspectives and forms of expertise. I look forward to seeing the national ocean framework and implementation plan evolve over the course of the year, and will work to ensure that my own work as a marine scientist is grounded in these values. I will continue to explore how the ocean impacts Atlantic Canadians and how we impact the ocean, and I look forward to partnering with stakeholders to incorporate diverse perspectives and expertise into my work.

PhD survival guide: resilience, resilience, resilience.

WhatsApp Image 2020-04-28 at 2.34.30 PM

Guest blog by Helen Packer, PhD student

“Success is the ability of going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm”

Winston Churchill

As I entered the new year, and the last few months of my PhD while also facing the challenges that have come with the COVID-19 crisis, I reflected back on the experience to see what I had learned about myself and my ability to deal with difficult times.

When I first decided to do a PhD I was nervous. I was not quite sure why I was doing it and how I would face the obstacles along the way. What I quickly realized was that completing a PhD is not about how smart you are, it is about how resilient you are. Resilience is the ability to get back on your feet after things don’t work the way you wanted or had anticipated. Resilience is a strength that is rooted in your curiosity about the world around you, your passion to make things a little better, the people you surround yourself with and support you and, your ability to slow down, step back and maintain the perspective on the bigger picture. Here are 8 ways I have found help me strengthened and build resilience.

  1. Find and remember your “why”

First and foremost, finding “your why”. That is: your passion. In my case, what I do is guided by my instinctive curiosity for understanding the world around me, my motivation (and optimism!) to make it better, and my concern about people living more harmoniously with each other and the natural environment. While everyone is guided by their own unique motivations, ultimately remembering “your why” as you face setbacks is an immense source of resilience.

  1. Turn failures and criticisms in opportunities to improve and grow

Sometimes it’s hard to stay optimistic both about the world and your ability to do anything about it. Many things will get in your way – the constant bombarding of negative news and sometimes criticisms of your work and approach. Criticisms and a sense of failure can be turned around if you change your perspective and see them as challenges for which you can seek solutions. Focus on how critics make you better about what you do. Remember that (most times) constructive criticisms are not there to stop you, but rather to challenge you and help you improve.

  1. Realize that you are worthy of belonging, no matter your failures

Resilience comes from realizing that you belong, no matter your failures. Unfortunately, we are not always best prepared to face failures and criticisms (which happens sometimes because we are not perfect), because they make us feel like don’t conform to expectations and therefore that we are not good enough to belong to a certain group. This feeling touches the deepest part of our being because feeling like we belong is part of our evolution as a gregarious species. So, when we fail or a criticized, we can develop feelings of low self-worth, insecurity, anxiety and depression.

This is where it’s important to remember that failing is normal and that the standards we are trying to meet (such as those set by academia) should not define whether we are worthy of belonging. We are worthy of belonging simply because we belong to this world and at the end of the day, we are all the same: figuring stuff out and struggling sometimes – what connects us are the challenges and fears we all have as human beings.

  1. Accept your imperfections

Resilience also comes from accepting yourself as imperfect. Especially as we take risks and set ourselves challenges (like a PhD), we are bound to fail along the way. We cannot know or predict everything. We must learn to love and forgive ourselves with all our imperfections. Treat yourself like you treat your friends: with compassion and understanding. And remember the things you are good at, your strengths and qualities like your reliability as a friend, your great cooking skills, your sense of humour etc.

  1. Stay connected with yourself and others

Related to the point above about accepting imperfection, resilience also relies on the ability to be your own best friend by taking time to connect with and care for myself. By that I mean take some time to check-in with yourself and realize how you feel and reflect on why that is. All too often, we fill our lives with busy-ness because it gives us a sense of importance and makes us feel useful. It boosts our ego. But it can mean we don’t take time out to reconnect with ourselves and we ignore how we feel because maybe it’s too painful. But leaving our emotions undealt with will not make them go away but only make it worse, and sometimes results in burnout. So, to reconnect with myself, I like to spend time alone and with family and friends. Find people who listen and who you can talk to about how you feel in a meaningful way. I find that sharing about my struggles can really lighten the load because you realize someone else is probably going or has gone through something, similar which makes you (and them!) feel less alone.

  1. Don’t be afraid to seek advice and help

Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you feel stuck in your work. Isolation is the worst and can make you feed lonely. I am not saying one should ask for help every time there’s a little bump in the road – of course you should first try to figure it out by yourself but if you find yourself really stuck – then it’s important to be OK with asking for help. You are still learning and that’s what you are here for – learn from others around you. Sharing and discussing ideas can more often than not help overcome roadblocks. Don’t be afraid to share imperfect work with your mentors, your PhD friends, your supervisor and your committee. Feedback, even if it can feel like criticism, is usually helpful. So, accept that whatever you produce, it will not be perfect! It never is!

  1. Practice mindfulness

The practice of mindfulness (which you can train through meditation) have come in handy for me in building resilience because it helps me calm down and put things in perspective. Meditation is about mindful breathing which means that your sole focus becomes the act of breathing and the sensation of your inbreath and outbreath.

First, meditation brings you back to the present moment and helps you connect with the now, with your body and the wonder of being alive (we don’t even know if that “miracle” could have happened elsewhere!). Second, by focusing on your breath you momentarily stop thinking. In other words, you become free from the incessant thinking, judging and worrying. And in this moment where your thoughts are now longer taking all the space in your mind, you feel calm. Third, meditation also helps practice concentration. It helps cultivate that focus that brings you into the what they call the flow: this feeling that you are completely absorbed by what you are doing now and not thinking about anything else.

  1. Organize yourself!

Find the best way to organize yourself that helps you keep track of the big picture and break it down. For me, this is about setting monthly goals and then weekly and daily tasks. For example, I make lists, prioritize, mark important deadlines in my calendar, keep a notebook to write down my ideas as they arise, etc. Everyone has a different way of organizing themselves, so you have to figure the best way for yourself. I keep a sheet with my yearly goals which I break down in three-month goals. And every week I look at them and make a plan for the week which is sort of my compass for that week. I also keep a daily journal of all the little tasks I need to do and what I’ve done that day which helps me with keeping track of what I need to do and allows me to look back and remind myself I can get stuff done!

WhatsApp Image 2020-04-28 at 2.34.30 PM (1)
Helen interacting with fishermen in Indonesia

Overall, the PhD is probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to do but that’s exactly why it has taught me so much about myself and how to become more resilient. Remember why you are doing it and never stop being kind to yourself.

“No Mud, No Lotus.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

Reflections on the Canadian Conference for Fisheries Research 2020


Guest Blog by Kayla Hamelin, PhD Student

Less than two days after ringing in the new year (and new decade), I made my way into a meeting room to take part in my first conference as a PhD student – the Canadian Conference for Fisheries Research (CCFFR 2020). After several years working outside of academia, the environment felt both friendly and familiar, but also refreshingly new. It was also a bit jarring to be under the fluorescent lights staring at a PowerPoint screen after two weeks away enjoying the holidays with lots of food, family, and fun! But one has to get back to work eventually, and what better way to kick off the new year than with inspiration from fellow researchers from across the country?

Held in partnership with the Society for Canadian Limnologists, CCFFR was celebrating its 73rd meeting, gathering both freshwater and marine researchers in Halifax to share the latest and greatest in fisheries science from coast to coast to coast. The event officially kicked off with multiple keynote addresses. I found Dr. Scott Bonar, who gave a welcome message on behalf of the American Fisheries Society, particularly memorable. He used a large portion of his time to highlight the importance of communicating with the public and encouraging us to do so, especially regarding global climate change. It was an appreciated reminder that climate change research is not outside the expertise of fisheries scientists, but rather an integral consideration in what we do, and thus we bear some responsibility in spurring climate action by the public.

As a researcher interested in the local knowledge held by fishers, I was thrilled to see that there were more community-based projects working with stakeholders than academic conferences I had attended in the past. More and more, researchers are co-developing projects with Indigenous groups, engaging citizen scientists, and working side-by-side with community partners. Despite this, I did feel that I was a bit of an anomaly as an interdisciplinarian, given that I split my time between the Bailey lab, focused on equity in fisheries governance, and the Hutchings lab, focused on fish ecology and evolution.

For this reason, I couldn’t help but notice the “siloed” nature of the fisheries research presented at CCFFR. While the audience included a mix of academics, NGO representatives, and staff from various government departments (primarily the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans [DFO]), most of the presentations focused on ecology, evolution, genetics, and research methodologies specific to the natural sciences. Most presenters asserted that their work had applications for management, but I couldn’t help but think that we could all benefits from having more folks from the policy and economics side of things in the room. After all, fisheries management typically has not only ecological objectives, but also social and economic ones as well. Some of my colleagues who attended the North American Association of Fisheries Economics in Halifax last year commented that their meeting, too, was very discipline-specific. It would be great to have more opportunities to bridge some of these gaps within the field of fisheries.

One opportunity did arrive at the end of CCFFR which nicely addressed this concern – a unique presentation organized by Noreen Kelly and Ryan Stanley (DFO), who led an open discussion on “the future of marine spatial planning in Canada’s oceans”. It was a chance to share ideas and perspectives among academics, government officials, and others with an interest in the topic. It provided more of an exchange of ideas than would typically occur in a question period at the end of an academic talk but was more open and public than the one-on-one or small group discussions that often take place in the poster session or during the coffee break. As a result, needs for data standardization, transparency, and communication with stakeholders were brought to light for further discussion.

All together, I learned a great deal about the field of fisheries science and enjoyed many fantastic presentations and conversations during CCFFR 2020. On a personal note, it was also a pleasure to reconnect with current and former colleagues from throughout my academic and NGO work history. I’m grateful to everyone who stopped by my poster presentation to ask questions and give feedback. I learned a lot about the parts of my project proposal that work and parts that need tweaking. Perhaps more importantly, talking about my proposed project helped me to realize the parts of my project that I am most engaged with and most excited about, so I can see more clearly where to focus my energy moving forward. Best fishes for a great year of research ahead!

ICCAT 2018 (Or: Finding humanity and humility on the Adriatic coast)

ICCAT’s Special Meeting in 2018 in Dubrovnik, Croatia

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) has just started its 26th Regular Meeting of the Commission. Last fall, as part of my thesis fieldwork, I attended the 21st Special Meeting of ICCAT in Dubrovnik, Croatia. In a nutshell, these are the annual gatherings for government representatives to collectively debate and adopt fishing policies and management measures for the tuna species in the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to government delegates, ICCAT is also attended by representatives of environmental conservation organizations, as well as people affiliated with fishing companies. Collectively this equates to over 800 people sitting and talking (often heatedly) around a table in a massive conference hall for about ten days.

Being in the meeting most of the time I had only been able to sneak quick glances out at the lovely weather we had all week while I was in Dubrovnik. And, sadly, the day after the meeting ended, the thunderstorm of the year hit the city. I tried to do a bit of sightseeing, but it was pretty pointless and so, playing it safe (i.e., there was nothing else to do), I headed to the airport early. My flight to Zagreb was supposed to be at 5:30 but I didn’t even know if it would still go—checking online showed nothing but delays and cancellations.

WhatsApp Image 2019-11-18 at 11.33.58 AM (1)
The weather on the last day of ICCAT made for significant travel delays

I need not have worried because I was in excellent company once I arrived. About 250 other people from ICCAT were sitting around the tiny airport in various spots wallowing in the misery of the thunder and lightning outside and the uncertainty of whether or not we would all be spending another night in Dubrovnik together. The palms outside the cafeteria near the check-in desks were getting shaken so hard that their movement kept triggering the motion-activated glass doors to the patio and every couple minutes we were all besieged with a wet gust of wind and the sound of the Amazon in the rainy season. It’s also important that I point out that the Dubrovnik airport is not Heathrow. I think it has three departure gates and sees a daily total of eight flights, all within the EU. It was not built for business travellers. So when I finally made my way through security, I found that the snack kiosk had been totally raided and all that remained were five or six bags of chips (all looking very helpless flopped on their sides or lying face down in the aftermath of what was surely an unexpected attack on their troops), a full shelf of yogurt parfaits (clearly not a health-conscious crowd), and a couple cans of pop (anything with even a modest alcohol content was long gone). And cash only. Because the storm was causing problems for the credit machines.

This is one reason why I love travel. It is the great equalizer. Whether you’re from a high or low-income country, whether you own a fishing company or work for a non-profit, everyone is subject to the same delays, everyone has to grin and bear long layovers, anyone’s luggage can go missing. It was odd to see government delegates who had been sporting nicely pressed suits and bright ties for the last ten days now dressed in fleece hoodies and jeans eating egg salad sandwiches from plastic boxes. The EU delegation was huddled at tables they had pushed together, the Japanese delegation sat at a small booth, the Americans were roaming aimlessly around the Duty-Free, and the Brazilians pulled up a chair for me and gave me a beer. By some miracle, I saw across the room that the environmental NGOs had gained a monopoly on all the power outlets in the room and, for the first time all week, seemed to be in the best spirits of everyone. Amazing what a little power can do (figuratively and literally). After a week of mostly unproductive discussion between delegates, which resulted in a failure to adopt any meaningful conservation measures, everyone had to endure each other’s company one last time. There was no escape. It really was a miserable, comical, and surreal sight to behold. And yet, it was so poignantly human that I couldn’t help but smile.

Of course, we did get out eventually, and we all sprinted like Boxing Day shoppers to our connections out of Zagreb. But my last few hours in Croatia were also markedly emblematic of the whole. I went to ICCAT thinking I would get a couple dozen or so interviews done for my thesis and some more first-hand experience in how RFMOs function. And yes, I did. But more than anything, the whole week felt like a lesson in the authenticity of humanity rather than the failure of an international institution. One day, as I was walking to the cafeteria for lunch, I saw one of the delegates beaming from ear to ear as he Facetimed with a little girl (I assume his daughter). Another evening as the discussion was dragging on in the main hall, I noticed a guy from one of the industry NGOs texting someone (I assume his significant other) kissing emojis and hearts. Then there were some industry reps who I sat behind one afternoon, seemingly disinterested in the discussion at the table and instead scrolling through their smartphones at content rather inappropriate for an international meeting. Outside of the meeting venue, I was greeted every night at the local wine bar by a cheerful middle-age Croatian woman who hardly spoke a word of English. Only once did she have any other guests, but her bar was always open when I arrived, and each time she welcomed me with a warm smile and a basket of bread with olive oil.

The thing that struck me the most about ICCAT was that regardless of what our ID tag said or where we sat at the table, we are all just people. We may not always understand one another’s culture or background or language, we may not always agree on how to fix a problem or how we ended up there in the first place, but everyone in the room does have the same overall goal. And, as we work toward that goal, we can always practice kindness and generosity instead of judgment. I gained huge respect for all the people I met and interviewed. Sure, a lot of the time I was incredibly frustrated as a bystander and I did not always agree with the decisions they made or the tactics used, and there are significant underlying problems affecting the global seafood trade—including political corruption. And while I don’t forgive them for these failures (I don’t think that absolution is mine to make anyway), the more I learn and the more I see, I am beginning to realize how complicated governance of transboundary fish is in practice. The problem with a lot of research is we assume that people behave rationally. Or, as academics, we think that if we publish a paper that has suggestions around improving management then policymakers will see it as valuable and actually want to implement our suggestions. But rarely is this the case. This is not to say our work can’t or doesn’t have impact—it does—but for most delegates, attending ICCAT is just their job. These people are responsible for looking out for the interests of their country’s economy and they could just as well be discussing olives or timber as bigeye tuna. They don’t actively seek out peer-reviewed journal articles to read each night before bed. And while I worry that the research I do makes little difference, I also know that it’s ok for them not to see the world the same way I do. Because if we saw everything the same, how boring life would be.

WhatsApp Image 2019-11-18 at 11.33.58 AM
Bluefin tuna, one of the most expensive tuna in the world served during the evening reception

These meetings have also made me realize that I’d be a terrible politician. I like everyone too much. I care too much for the people I meet because I see them as humans, not as the countries or industries or institutions they represent. And so, while I want to contribute positively to all of this, I still don’t really know how. Most of the people in these meetings know so much more than I do, and I feel rather silly thinking that I will ever be able to tell them something new or useful. And yet, maybe, I can still do something they can’t. Maybe, as someone who has autonomy, who conducts independent and unbiased research, who can talk to people from all backgrounds and affiliations, maybe there is something I can see that they can’t. They can’t bully me or bribe me because I am of no value to them. Yet if I don’t include their perspectives, they fear they will be misrepresented. It was amazing to me how many people actually wanted to talk to me because they wanted to make sure my work wasn’t biased against them. All week I noticed people watching me as I wound my way through the crowds or stood silently at a table during break. I think most people there didn’t know what to make of me but once they saw me talking to people with opposing views to theirs, they wanted to make their voice heard too. And so, while it’s a pipedream, an ability to hold their attention is still something. Right now, all I can do is continue to be genuine in all our interactions. Because that is how trust is built. And there can be no progress toward common ground without trust. This year, at the 26th Meeting In Mallorca, Spain (which I am also attending), I hope the to build on the relationships I formed last year. Because regardless of their affiliation, I want the people here to know I care about the work they do, and I want my work to contribute to ensuring they can do their job effectively in to the future. To do that, I need to understand and experience their job as best I can. Because, ultimately, there isn’t really any debate when it comes to one thing: all everyone wants is healthy stocks and sustainable tuna fisheries in the Atlantic.


Reflections on the Labrador research forum



Guest Blog by Rachael Cadman, PhD student

By the end of my week in Happy Valley, I had already sworn to become fluent in Inuktitut, write a review of the entire oral histories of Labrador fisheries, and attempt to single-handedly dismantle the colonial structures of academia. It was the first official week of my Interdisciplinary PhD, and I was so honoured and surprised by the warm and enthusiastic reception we received that I had immediately fallen for Labrador and the people I met there.

Megan Bailey (MAP Professor and my PhD supervisor) and I had travelled to Happy Valley/Goose Bay in late April/early May to attend the Labrador Research Forum. It was an opportunity to get oriented on ongoing research in Labrador, to build relationships with our research partners in Nunatsiavut, and to start planning for the future of our research project.

We started the week by meeting with potential partners on the project. We’ve teamed up with the Torngat Wildlife, Plants and Fisheries Secretariat to work, along with partners in the government and in the communities, towards a vision for the future of commercial fisheries in Nunatsiavut. We had meetings with the Torngat Fish Producers Co-operative and the Nunatsiavut Government Department of Lands and Natural Resources to hear their input on the project proposal. Both groups provided invaluable insights on how to improve the project, and the general enthusiasm for the work was so motivational that I got really fired up for the next four years of what promises to be fascinating and rewarding work.

Following the meetings, Megan and I attended the Labrador Research Forum. Because the Forum is thematically organized around “Labrador”, rather than being specific to a discipline, the proceedings were truly interdisciplinary, affording an opportunity to see the whole range of research that is happening in Labrador. Topics were generally organized around health, archival research, and social and environmental science. This gave me a chance to learn a lot of interesting and useful things about Labrador – did you know, for example, that Newfoundland and Labrador is the only province where researchers haven’t found the West Nile virus? That microplastics are intensely place-based forms of pollution? Or that rabies is reasonably common in Arctic foxes and stray dogs in Labrador?

While all of the research was engaging, I took three interrelated lessons from the conference that will play a major role in my work moving forward. I still have a lot of work to do unpacking and deepening my understanding of these concepts but some initial reflections on how they will affect my thinking and my actions as my PhD develops are expanded on below:


As a researcher in an Indigenous space, I am not a leader. I am there to listen, to learn, and to respond to the needs of the community. It is all too easy to act on the power that comes along with being an academic and a settler. Acting on those impulses, however, will not help anyone. It erases the knowledge, the history, and the relationships that Indigenous people hold. It closes my eyes and ears to the power of a completely independent system of knowledge.

Instead, as I embark on this project, I must always remain aware of everything I do not know, and everything I can never know. This is a frightening place to be in as a researcher – we are not supposed to say “I don’t know”. But I will never have clear and total access to Indigenous knowledge, and I can’t claim any ownership over whatever I do learn from the people I work with. My role is not to lead, but to follow – to help where I can, and to make sure that the benefits of my work are returned to the communities.

Centring Indigenous perspectives in research

In approaching this project with humility, I must necessarily move myself to the side – I am, as much as possible, an observer – and move Indigenous perspectives into the centre of the research.

Centering Indigenous perspectives transfers power from the hands of the researcher into the control of the community. This allows the communities to structure the project according to their needs and priorities. It opens up space for the research to become reciprocal, because the researcher can create something that is useful for the community.

Research methods must be highly participatory and iterative to reflect the needs of the community. Several panels of Inuit researchers, community members and elders pointed out that any researcher coming into the community from the outside should be asking: What does your community need? What do you want to know? and to make the answers the basis for their research.

Academia can make this a difficult task, as funding models and timelines may interfere with the ability to develop projects in this way. But it is necessary that I find avenues to work around these systems in order to be accountable to the needs and priorities of the community; centering Indigenous perspectives in research both encourages self-determination, and makes it possible to deliver a product that is actually useful for the community.

The importance of relational/place-based engagement

In order to do research that is reflexive, iterative and community-driven, the person collecting information must be embedded in the location of the research. This is true for practical reasons; participatory research should be evaluated and community-reviewed on a regular basis to make sure that it is true to the collective vision. Staying in the community makes this type of back-and-forth communication possible, and builds better trust relationships between the researcher and the community.

It is also more fundamentally true insofar as it speaks to the relational nature of learning. For a long time, it has been a tradition in Western science to lay claim to a neutral, value-free perspective. What was revealed to me through the course of this conference was the fact that knowledge is never value-free, and that presenting it as such erases the incredible complexities and nuances of life. All of our knowledge is grounded in culture and in place. Learning is human and relational, and it is my task to acknowledge that embodiment.

My research, therefore, must be (literally) grounded in place. It must acknowledge my limitations, biases and perspectives, and it must pay as much attention to the process of developing and conducting research as it does to the final result.



Megan and I have returned from Goose Bay, and I have since been grappling with the implications of everything I learned for my project. I maintain my sincere and probably naïve promises to accomplish all of the goals I set at the top of this post, and more (I am already looking into how I could participate in the West Nile mosquito project this summer), but I acknowledge now the implications of what it means to embark on a project like this one. It is quite an overwhelming first week of a PhD to realize that I need to commit not only my head, but also my heart, to the challenges ahead.



Small is beautiful: Taking stock of improvement efforts in Indonesian handline tuna fisheries

Guest blog by Helen Packer, PhD student

As the largest archipelago in the world and with over 17,000 islands in the heart of the Coral Triangle, Indonesia’s past, present, and future is intimately tied to the ocean, including its rich tuna fisheries.

The Indonesian handline yellowfin tuna fishery has been in a Fishery Improvement Project (FIP) since 2011. It all started with a Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) pre-assessment commissioned by WWF Indonesia, and has now become a large multi-stakeholder effort including local and international NGOs, industry members (via Asosiasi Perikanan Pole and Line dan Handline Indonesia – Handline and Pole & Line Industry Association, AP2HI) and international buyers from both Europe and the US. The attention that Indonesian fisheries have attracted is considerable. Donors and buyers alike are funding multiple efforts that aim to improve the socio-economic aspects of small-scale tuna fisheries and to ready them to meet international market requirements for various environmental (MSC), social (Fair Trade USA) and traceability aspects: (US SIMP, EU IUU regulations, etc).

Buru Handline fisherman – Photo: MDPI

The fishery may be small-scale, but working towards these goals has been no small task, as MDPI, an Indonesian NGO based out of Bali, can attest. MDPI (Masyarakat dan Perikanan Indonesia – Community and Fisheries of Indonesia) was set up in 2013 with the founding philosophy coming from Anova Food USA’s Fishing & Living initiative: “Improving Life in the Fishing Communities”. In 2012, Anova’s Fishing & Living initiative entered a 1-year public-private partnership with USAID Indonesia to set up a pilot data collection program in the handline tuna fishery of Lombok, subsequently called I-Fish. The data collection program quickly grew to new sites with Anova hiring over 25 enumerators across different landing sites. Given the success of the data collection program and additional funding opportunities for traceability activities, MDPI was formed to take over and continue the program. MDPI has now grown to an organization of over 70 staff distributed across the country and funded by multiple international donors.

MDPI annual gathering
MDPI annual gathering (October 2018) – Photo: MDPI.

MDPI’s motto is “Happy People, Many Fish” and has three main streams of work:

  1. The Fishery Improvement (FI) team focuses on fisheries data collection. When the FIP started, lack of data was the main issue with small-scale fisheries in Indonesia – there simply was not any data that could be used to assess the environmental sustainability of the fishery. MDPI now collects fisheries data across eastern Indonesia, including catch, effort and spatial fishing data. These data are uploaded to I-Fish, which is now used by NGOs and sent to the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries (MMAF).
  2. The Fair Trade (FT) team focuses on the Fair Trade USA program. In 2013, a group of 70 fishermen became Fair Trade certified, making it the first fishery in the world to be Fair Trade certified. Today, the program now includes over 500 fishermen and continues to grow as more fishermen hear about the program. MDPI’s field staff lives with the FT communities and helps them with setting up fishermen associations, manage the Fair Trade premium and provide various trainings to empower them (e.g. financial management training). The program has brought direct benefits to fishers, and the Fair Trade standard is well-aligned with the FAO Guidelines on Securing Small Scale Fisheries.

    fishermen_group (5)
    Fair Trade fisherman association – Photo credit: MDPI
  3. The Supply Chain (SC) team focuses on traceability and monitoring. The SC team implements traceability systems to ensure that products coming from small-scale fisheries meet international market requirements and therefore are not excluded on the lucrative export market which supports their livelihood. The SC team also works on fisheries monitoring by piloting vessel tracking devices (e.g. SPOT TRACE and PDS) and electronic observer technologies (handheld cameras) suitable for small-scale fisheries.

I had the privilege of spending the last two weeks of November with MDPI, attending a harvest strategy workshop in Jakarta with government fisheries scientists and managers, visiting small-scale processing plants and meeting with the handline tuna fishermen of North Buru (a small island in the Maluku province). The goal of this visit was to start preparing the fishery and its supply chains for entering MSC full assessment before the end of the year. Even though I have been involved with MDPI’s work and the handline tuna fishery since 2013, this trip has reminded me once more of the fascinating complexity of tuna fisheries management from the international levels of fisheries management to the beaches where the tuna are landed.

One of the main sustainability challenges for all tuna fisheries in the Pacific Ocean is the absence of harvest strategies. Given the migratory and transboundary nature of tuna fisheries, harvest strategies must be developed by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (or WCPFC), an inter-governmental body in charge of managing Pacific tuna fisheries. Member states like Indonesia are thus also working to develop harvest strategies that are compatible with the WCPFC’s, a process that started in the fall of 2014 and is still on-going. During my trip, I had the chance to attend one of the bi-annual harvest strategy meetings during which Indonesian fisheries managers and scientists, with the support of NGOs such as MDPI and international experts, met to review the result of different harvest control rules and their potential social, economic and environmental trade-offs. During this process, Indonesia is gaining expertise and knowledge on how harvest strategies are designed and taking the matter in their own hands. Together with other NGOs, MDPI has been an important partner in this process by providing some of the data needed by the government to conduct a stock assessment, the first step for designing suitable harvest strategies.

It seems that the harvest strategy process along with Indonesia’s ambition to sustainably manage its fisheries has triggered multiple changes in how Indonesia monitors its fisheries, with the introduction of new port sampling forms, electronic logbook programs and modernized database management between various departments related to fisheries management. These are massive changes in a country where data are still largely recorded on paper and mailed from the provinces to the central government. Moreover, the government will soon be able to integrate data collected by NGOs such as MDPI as part of their national fisheries database. On this note, on December 7th, MDPI and the Capture Fisheries division (KKP) of MMAF signed an MoU which solidifies their partnership. This sets a new precedent for the government of Indonesia to collaborate with NGOs who support sustainable fisheries and provide capacity where it is missing. The inclusion of handline tuna fisheries data is also the first step to ensure that small-scale tuna fisheries are no longer being overlooked by national monitoring programs and their interests are being taken into account. A very important step given that an estimated 90% of Indonesian vessels targeting tuna species in Indonesia are small-scale.

MoU signing between MDPI and KKP – Photo: KKP/MMAF Indonesia

From the busy roads and air-conditioned hotels of Jakarta, I flew to the Maluku province to better understand the management process and how MDPI’s work in the field is supporting that effort. And boy! it is truly marvelous how MDPI has built a network of dedicated staff who collect daily detailed fisheries data from the isolated beaches and coastal villages of the Maluku islands.

Around 4pm, after a 12-hour fishing trip, two fishermen landed their 8m canoe on the beach as family, friends and MDPI staff rushed to greet them and help haul the canoe up onto the dry shore.

Families and friends help haul the boat back on the beach – Photo: Helen Packer

Before the tuna loins are unloaded (interestingly, tuna is loined at sea in this fishery as the boat itself is not large enough to store an icebox suitable for a whole tuna) and sold to the local buyer, MDPI staff measure the loins and ask the fishermen a number of questions about his trip: fishing grounds, fuel use etc. These data are carefully recorded on a clipboard or tablet and directly uploaded to the I-Fish database.

Loins are measured as soon as the fish is landed by MDPI’s sustainability coordinators – Photo: MDPI

From there, each loin is marked with the name of the fisherman who caught it and sent to the processing plant for further processing and export. Many fishermen in the area are Fair Trade certified and receive a premium placed in an account owned by the local fishermen’s association. Based on a consensus decision between the fishermen, the premium is spent on community projects such as improved trash disposal infrastructure, safety-at-sea equipment, saving accounts for the fishermen’s children or turtle conservation projects.

To ensure that the fishermen get their premium, the loins must be carefully traced until the last point of sale: the customer. MDPI was again instrumental in this process, working with Wageningen University to pilot a robust traceability system that allows us to trace each loin back to the community that caught it. This pilot was then modified into an electronic traceability system called Trace Tales for processing plants which were developed by MDPI and funded by USAID. Trace Tales has been a small revolution not only for traceability but also for business intelligence as it helps with reducing human error and gives real-time tracking of yield and inventory.

TraceTales is an electronic traceability system developed by MDPI for seafood processing plants -Photo: MDPI.

Artisanal fishermen are some of the last fishermen that truly know their way around the ocean, often without GPS, and truly know how to locate the fish by observing the surface of the sea for hours, looking for signs such as dolphins, birds or flickering activity below the surface. This requires incredible experience, patience and observation skills. This is more than a way of fishing, it is a way of life that deserves to be preserved. Making sure that these fishermen’s interests are represented, for example by collecting fisheries data for management, telling their stories to consumers on the other side of the world and making sure they retain their access to the lucrative export market, is what MDPI together with Anova and other stakeholders aim to do. Happy people, many fish!

Project trip to Nain: Reflections on fisheries management

Guest blog by Melina Kourantidou, Post-doc

In late November (2018) I travelled to Nain (Nunajnguk) for participation in a workshop organized by the Torngat Wildlife Plants and Fisheries Secretariat. This was part the first of what is sure to be a series of project trips for my new postdoc position funded by the Ocean Frontiers Institute – Module E, Ecosystem Indicators for Changing Oceans. The purpose of the workshop was to bring together representatives from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), the Nunatsiavut Government (NG), researchers, local harvesters and Labrador Inuit Land Claims beneficiaries and designates to an open dialogue on the status, current management of fisheries as well as future planning. The main species of discussion were Snow Crab, Northern Shrimp, Turbot and Arctic Char.


The group addressed issues that ranged from environmental changes and vulnerabilities such as ocean acidification, health of fish stocks and fluctuations in fish stock biomass due to changes in currents and tides, changes in water temperature, parasites and invasive species, to market components such as prices, landings, local processing capacity as well as fisheries management policies and measures such as mesh size, catch per unit effort, and various other components of both the commercial and the subsistence fishery. All that to say it was a busy two days!

The meeting was very informative and got me and my colleagues engaged in a series of discussions on how to begin our work in OFI Module E. My part of the project will be to identify and characterize ways to improve the governance of marine resources, especially those resources of importance to the Inuit in the self-governing Nunatsiavut region of Labrador. In particular, employing a methodology based upon the development of socio-ecological indicators and the construction of models that inform natural resource conservation, I plan to investigate broad questions concerning whether an integrated framework for ecosystem-based management (EBM) can lead to improved governance in this region. At this preliminary stage, my goal is to deepen my understanding of the economic and institutional determinants of marine resource use in the area as well as the major environmental and governance challenges.


A lot of the difficulties and disagreements in marine resource management in Northern Labrador have roots that reach back decades. The Nunantsiavut Government is an Inuit regional government, among the first Canadian Inuit regions to have achieved self-governance, after nearly 3 decades of negotiations (see more on information on the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement- LILCA and the path to self-governance here). Despite the success in achieving self-governance, and in including Inuit at multiple levels of decision-making, there still remain numerous challenges that have not been adequately addressed. These institutional changes to self-governance aspire to fundamentally alter the resource management dynamics and advance, in an equitable manner, the way resources (both natural and human) are being allocated. However, this is a rather gradual process that requires time as well as solid long-term planning. The good news is that there is already work in progress in designing sustainable and resilient marine resource management policies in the area: The Imappivut Marine Plan (Our Oceans) is a plan to manage and protect Inuit interests in the coastal and marine areas of Labrador by putting forward a set of concrete cooperative management plans for the protection of future Inuit generations.

The most prevalent concern amongst the participants at the workshop that drew my attention had to do with limited representation of vessel owners/harvesters’ interests in the decision-making process for marine resource use by DFO. Therefore, some of the participants took the opportunity at the meeting to express their concerns in hopes that the NG and DFO representatives would communicate them to higher-level decision making authorities. In the paragraph that follows, I’ll give a very brief overview of some of those concerns which I aspire to address in my project.

The processing plants in communities of Northern Labrador often have problems finding and maintaining employees due to problems with accommodation in those small communities; that is often seen as a waste of valuable resources. In addition to that, the fact that harvesters are not license holder but designates, that do not have a seat at the negotiating table, is not aligned with the policy makers’ vision for local economic development as it discourages young people from building a career in the fishery and therefore results in missing opportunities. Despite the ambitious plans based on the success of the LILCA, there is generally more action needed to support Northern Labrador; a way to do this, according to some harvesters at the meeting, could be to invest in processing plants in the area. There also seems to be a competitive relationship between large and small vessel: today’s technological efficiency allows for fishing activity almost all year round which creates concerns for the potential of large and efficient vessels depleting the fish stocks. I could also sense a conflict between the ‘communal’ (subsistence) and the ‘competitive’ (commercial) fishery, since the former is hardly monitored.  Access issues and rights allocation were also brought up in the discussion; although there’s a general urge for locals to make investments (in e.g. fishing boats), the fact that there are no quotas attached to their boats is seen as a barrier. The limited representation of local harvesters over the years in the decision-making process is seen as the main driver for lost economic opportunities. When the shrimp quotas for example first started being allocated, unlike in other places, in Northern Labrador they were not attached to other quotas (eg. crab) or boats. Additionally, in the 1980s, at the time when there was a general boost in economic activities in the fisheries sector, Northern Labrador missed the opportunity of transitioning to larger boats: licenses were not assigned as they should to beneficiaries and those licenses that were not renewed were lost.

Besides the marine resource challenges addressed at the meeting, an additional thing that I did learn to appreciate while being in Nain is that weather conditions can be a tremendous challenge if the necessary infrastructure is not in place. And if one wants to effectively support livelihoods and economic activity in Arctic coastal communities, investments in upgrading such infrastructure would have to be an absolute priority. Me and my colleagues were stuck in Nain for 3 days after the project meeting with no planes landing or taking off due to the severe weather conditions and the limited capacity of the airport. I am confident that Nain’s airport must be the airport with the smallest runway (605 m / 1,986 ft) in the whole Arctic; I can only reference locals for that, but a look at the airports with the shortest runways at a global level leaves almost no doubt about it.


My rumination might lack a neat conclusion at this early stage of the project, however, the anecdotal information from the meeting in Nain, spurred interest and attention to issues that are not often discussed in the formal fisheries economic literature. Fisheries management in small Arctic communities presents unique challenges which have not been adequately thought through by scholars in the field. Those challenges call for more theoretical work as well as data collection on the socioecological components that drive marine resource use in Northern Labrador.

Special thanks to Rodd Laing (Director of Environment, NG) and Joey Angnatok (local harvester and boat owner) for their contribution to the reflections from the workshop as well as for spending additional time with me and my colleagues to help us better understand the dynamics of marine resource use and management in Labrador. Thanks also to the Torngat Joint Fisheries Board for the invitation to attend.