As part of a series highlighting the work of young people in addressing the climate crisis, writer Patricia Lane interviews Christine Stortini, a marine biologist fighting for sustainable fisheries.

Christine Stortini surfing at Martinique Beach in Nova Scotia. Photo by Christine Stortini

Christine Stortini

Marine biologist Christine Stortini knows when we fish sustainably, we also make ocean ecosystems more resilient to climate change.

Tell us about your work.

I analyze data to understand how fishing or other stressors like pollution, vehicle traffic, rapid climate change or dams impact a particular species or throw an ecosystem out of balance. I develop recommendations for decision-makers to help restore equilibrium.

For example, humans like to eat cod, which are themselves an important predator. When we overfished cod in the 1990s, their prey, smaller fish and invertebrates like herring, capelin, sand lance, and crabs, took over the ecosystem. These smaller animals have shorter lifespans and adapt more rapidly to climate change or the arrival of new competitors. Their boom slowed the cod recovery, and even 30 years later, that fishery is still depleted and the ecosystem remains out of balance and less-resilient.

One of the best ways to protect our water-based ecosystems is with marine protected areas. If we can protect an entire ecosystem, we can work with nature to more easily reduce the impacts from any one source.

Can you tell us about some successes?

Marine biologist Christine Stortini explains how overfishing throws ocean ecosystems out of whack and makes ocean life more susceptible to the ill effects of #ClimateChange. #sustainable #OceanEcoSystems #OceanStudies

When I was a student, I studied the impacts of industrial-scale dredge fishing off Nova Scotia. We alerted decision-makers that too much dredging for surf clams in a particular area would destroy important habitat for large fish, like cod, further limiting their chances of recovery. We also argued that it would be more sustainable to restrict licences to local small fishers than to allow industrial dredging of the ocean floor.

It worked! Decisions to expand the fishery were halted until more scientific information could be collected and local First Nations communities and fishers were consulted.

My master's degree research as part of a team assessing species' vulnerabilities to climate change contributed to one of the first decisions to include climate when determining annual fishing quotas for highly vulnerable species. Including climate as a risk factor is now relatively common.

Advertisement for Christine Stortini's guest lecture on the Ocean and Climate Change for Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants. Photo by Kathleen Dorian

How else do you use your scientific knowledge?

Every year, I am a guest teacher in my mom’s elementary school. I talk with the children about the impacts of shark-finning, overfishing, pollution and climate change and the importance of conservation. The children get very excited and frequently take these lessons home to their parents, explaining that it is not OK to buy bluefin tuna or to waste water anymore. I really enjoy this work and like knowing I am reaching their parents, too. Soon I will be publishing an interactive book in French, English and Spanish for use in classrooms and homes to provide an accessible resource for educators, children and the public.

What worries you?

I am only one person, and there is so much to be done. Staying hopeful is sometimes a struggle. But I see the faces of those children and I remember that sometimes decision-makers do listen. I would rather reach the end of my life knowing I tried than give up.

What would you like to say to other young people?

Don’t be afraid to dream big and start small. What you do has ripple effects, one of which might be that you feel stronger yourself. There are millions of other people who care and want to support you, and you might inspire them, too.

Christine Stortini teaching about the Ocean Biome at Toronto Montessori Schools in Richmond Hill, Ont. Photo by Rachel Marks

Do you have a message for older people?

Support from the older people in my life has been crucial. I grew up on an island in the Great Lakes with my grandparents next door. They always had time to answer my questions and teach me to garden or to see nature in a new way. My grandpa made doing the right thing a way of life and spent weekends helping in soup kitchens after spending his workweek as a judge. He helped bring community service programs as an alternative to jail time into the justice system. He taught me to look for new solutions.

The women scientists before me, my mentor in particular, have encouraged and supported me and kept me going. At times, I felt like giving up and taking an easier career route, but my mom also encouraged me to keep pursuing my dreams even though it was hard, and I was far from home. If you have a younger person in your life, know that your support really matters.