Science Literacy Week//

SciLit Week: Dr. Ussif Rashid Sumaila is saving the world’s oceans one fish at a time

Dr. Ussif Rashid Sumaila is a professor and director of the Fisheries Economics Research Unit at UBC’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries. Sumaila has received numerous awards for his research on fish trade, sustainable development and environmental and resource economics, and has publications in multiple journals. Yet the path to this impact wasn’t always so straightforward.

Sumaila’s interest in the environment began at a young age, when his grandfather would tell him and his siblings to be mindful of how they walk on the earth.

“‘You walk on the ground so hard! You should walk on the ground of the Earth as if it feels pain,’” he said during our interview, recalling his grandfather’s chastising. “That was my first encounter with environmental sensitivity and environmental consciousness.”

Alongside his grandfather, another prominent familial influence for Sumaila was his father. Sumaila’s parents were progressive in that they didn’t force him to pursue a career in a specific field. Instead, he recalls, they advised him to follow his interests as long as he committed himself to them and did them well.

Sumaila points at this support as a motivator for him to pursue his research in fisheries, despite having people around him who, at the time, didn’t see any value in that career pathway.

“But these days they say, ‘Rashid, who would’ve thought fish would take you this far?’” said Sumaila, laughing.

Along with influences from family, Sumaila also drew inspiration from Norway, where he received his PhD while attending the University of Bergen.

“In Norway you cannot get away from the ocean or the fish, so that’s really where I focused my research on fish,” he said.

Going global

One of the great challenges that Sumaila experienced while advancing in his career was making the transition from working on small projects to global problems. But once he became used to the change, Sumaila found that he was able to thrive in this new environment. It was especially rewarding, he explained, because the interdisciplinary nature of the research allowed him to work with experts from various fields — from lawyers, biologists, geographers and social scientists to even philosophers.

To work in such a diverse and interdisciplinary environment, Sumaila emphasized the need to be patient and open minded. Aside from bringing expertise from one’s field, researchers also have to be mindful of ethics and different cultures.

“Many of my fellow economists — when they come into the discussion, they insist that profit maximization is the only thing they care about,” said Sumaila. “If you are like that, you cannot work in an interdisciplinary setting.

“You have to learn the language of each other — I have to learn ecology to some extent, and they also have to learn economics to some extent.”

Sumaila’s career has also allowed him to travel across the globe, visiting almost one hundred countries. Since he has worked on many projects and in many locations, there have been numerous memorable moments.

“You have to learn the language of each other — I have to learn ecology to some extent, and they also have to learn economics to some extent.”

— Dr. Ussif Rashid Sumaila, director of the Fisheries Economics Research Unit at UBC

He recalled one of these events during our interview, from a time he did a feature for the documentary End of the Line in Senegal. On one of the days, Sumaila and the film crew were following a big trawler fishing for shrimp off the coast of Senegal.

Fishers on the trawler were high grading the shrimp, where the best quality catches were harvested and the rest were dumped. In turn, many fish were tossed back into the ocean — dead or alive. Seeing this, the people on Sumaila’s small boat started collecting as many fish as possible.

“We came back to the coastal village, and we [had] a barbecue with the village and they enjoyed it. We fed so many people,” said Sumaila. “It touched me a lot because the waste — the food for people being thrown out — was messing with the ocean because [the trawler was] just interested in grabbing the profit.”

Bringing it all home

To Sumaila, both the well-beings of wildlife and the human population are entwined. However, balancing both is not a simple task because often, Sumaila is faced with governments who are resistant to implementing change, specifically on the subject of overfishing.

“My goal is to do research to help us make sure that we don’t take too much — kill the fish and kill the source — and we don’t pump too much waste, because that is also dangerous,” he explained. “ ... You have to get these benefits and make it available to as many people as possible, not just the one percent running off with everything.”

Although it is a stressful job, he adds that the positive impact his work has on people makes the struggle worthwhile.

In recent days, Sumaila has been busy with multiple projects, including working alongside the World Trade Organization to target overfishing. They are doing this by attempting to redirect governments’ usage of taxpayer money to ensure that it does not go towards overfishing.

Sumaila is also working on an OceanCanada partnership, where he is putting all the ocean sustainability research into a book that can make it easier for future researchers who want to expand research in the field.

The mention of perseverance and resistance came up a lot in our discussion, and it came up again when Sumaila reiterated the power that UBC students — and young people across the globe — have.

“The key thing is to first of all have a trained mind, a trained mind that is open. And if you have that, you can do anything, no matter your discipline. … Just put your heart in whatever — even fish can do it!

“And don’t think you are too small to do anything, because many of the good things in the world are started by an individual.”