Scientists use art to advocate for oceans

July 26, 2016

An Institute International Resarch Roundtable is using 16 digital art images to communicate the impact of climate change on our oceans.

Ryan Vachon is the Executive Director of Earth Initiatives, a documentary film maker and a participant in the Roundtable, Seafood in an Uncertain Future: from Scenarios to Policies, which brought together experts from around the world to ask the pressing question: Do we have enough seafood to feed the world’s demand in an era of climate change? 

“The oceans provide services to humans that are almost unimaginable,” says Vachon– who is part of the Roundtable led by Principal Investigators, William Cheung from the UBC Fisheries Centre, along with Dr. Yoshitaka Ota from the Nereus Program and Dr. Masahiro Matsuura from the University of Tokyo.

Visualizing climate change is one way of instigating curiosity about its impact on our planet and oceans, he adds, saying he hopes these digital images will do just that.

“It’s not always intuitive how the ocean works. People live by the shores so they can view the ocean, but they don’t see underneath the surface. The waves and the darkness don’t allow people to visualize what is really going on underneath, whether it is the biodiversity or the movement of the water.”

Ryan Vachon, climate scientist and upcoming participant in the Peter Wall Roundtable, Seafood in an Uncertain Future, spearheaded the creation of the 16 digital images to represent complex scientific ideas about our future oceans. He speaks about the project in an interview above.

Climate scientists estimate that about half of all carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is being absorbed by the oceans causing ocean acidification, which impacts marine ecosystems and biodiversity.

“We don’t see it, a lot of this stuff is hard to visualize, but meanwhile the science that we are doing gets it,” he adds.

Vachon worked with digital artist Jenn Paul Glaser for hours to translate knowledge and information about important issues around oceans, fishing, aquaculture, conservation of the marine environment and the preservation of coastal livelihoods in order to produce 16 stunning digital art images.

Eventually, Vachon and others hope to use the images to raise funds for initiatives that support ocean sustainability.

Below: a short interview with Glaser and a sneak peak of the new digital images. 


True Cost of Fishing 

This piece attempts to communicate the complications that go into the cost of fish in commercial markets. What do current costs cover? Boat, travel, work and storage expenses. The practice of harvesting seafood might be accompanied by degradations to ecosystems or pollution in our ocean? If values for these impacts are not included in the market cost, who pays for them and when?

Ocean and Culture

People interact with their surroundings. Hundreds of millions of people reside within 10 meters of sea level. Billions live ‘near’ the coast. For hundreds, even thousands, of years human connection to the ocean has resounded through culture: the food they ate, traditional story telling, climate, wars, dress-wear and economics. For some, this interconnectivity is implicit, but should not be overshadowed or forgotten.


Our ocean is a bounty of life. Over 1 billion people depend upon seafood as their primary source of protein. As such, we fish our oceans. Meeting the food demands of people is challenging, and running fisheries as streamlined businesses welcomes new methods and technologies for harvesting the fish. Aquaculture is a practice for confining fish for easier management – with the previously mentioned interests at heart. This presents an incredible opportunity for industry and feeding our planets growing population. However, management practices, health of our fisheries and the nutritional quality of the resulting food is under intense scrutiny.

Computer Modeling

The best way to predict our future is to understand how the past and present function. Scientists examine our natural world, creating equations for relationships between variables in nature, such as fish size and temperature. Many of these equations can be folded into a computer program that tries to mimic reality. Once compiled, we can make a change to one variable, like temperature, and we can see how this ripples through fish populations or planetary processes. In addition to this, other scientists can then use the results from these models to understand how changes in temperature will impact market economics or other.

Human Reliance on Our Ocean

We might live on land (for the most part), but we rely hugely on the services that the ocean has to offer. (1) Industrial shipping is a huge component in trade between countries. (2) Fish provide a large proportion of humans with food. (3) Our planet is largely (71%) covered in ocean. Under this water lie enormous lands brimming with natural resources that are being extracted for improving human qualities of life. (4) Our ocean is wild and unknown. As such, studying strange and new organisms provides countless opportunities to forward medicine. Because of these dependencies, it makes incredible sense to understand, maintain and protect our ocean.


The Roundtable held a free public event on December 11, 2014 at the UBC Roy Barnett Recital Hall, UBC School of Music entitled Can We Eat Fish in the Future? where these works were on display.