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Here’s what works–and what doesn't–when it comes to coping with climate change at the edge of the sea

Students study the Gulf of Maine’s rocky intertidal zone as part of a course focusing on how different societies around the world are responding to coastal issues. Courtesy photo Brian Helmuth

The tanks at the Sai Kung fish market in Hong Kong were brimming with unusual creatures. Buyers chose from live mantis shrimp, sea snails, lobsters, clams, giant groupers, and arrays of other fish and had them cooked on the spot.

There was every kind of seafood under the sun. And from all appearances, many of the species were endangered or illegally caught. 

With the help of a student from the University of Hong Kong, Savannah Kinzer, a fourth-year environmental studies major at Northeastern, spoke with one of the fishermen. The students asked what he thought about government regulations and the future of the fishing industry.

The fisherman acknowledged that regulations are important, Kinzer says, but only if they didn’t interfere with his ability to feed his family.  

The students explored the Atlantic coast from Massachusetts to Canada to better understand the challenges facing coastal communities and how solutions are being implemented around the world. Courtesy photos via Brian Helmuth

“That was a pattern we saw the entire time,” Kinzer says. “If you don’t have the local population or demographic agreeing that these issues are important, and you don’t have their engagement, then the solution that you come up with, regardless of the science, won’t be a sustainable solution. We need the local people to adopt a solution themselves and feel that it’s their idea, because this is their land and this is their livelihood.”

Kinzer was one of 12 Northeastern students who traveled to Hong Kong and Malaysia this summer to study the challenges facing coastal communities around the world and understand the solutions being implemented. 

“Coastal communities are at the front line of climate change and other challenges,” says Brian Helmuth, a professor of marine and environmental sciences who co-led the trip with fellow professor Mark Patterson. “Anything that happens on land is immediately impacting the ocean ecosystem. And anything happening in the ocean is immediately impacting the coastal community.”

In Malaysia, the group visited the Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Centre for Marine and Coastal Studies to learn about oyster aquaculture, which provides an alternate way for fishermen to make money. Courtesy photo via Brian Helmuth

The goal of the course was for the students to see how different societies around the world are responding to coastal issues, Helmuth says. And then be able to communicate those issues to people who aren’t scientists.

“To some extent, people are the same the world over,” he says. “They have a sense of connection with the ocean, in that they rely on the ocean for their livelihood. I think the biggest difference is what they see as their expected access—what should they be able to do without any interference from the government?”

The students were on a Dialogue of Civilizations, an intensive international program run by Northeastern faculty and, typically, open only to Northeastern students. In this case, however, the course also included eight students from the University of Hong Kong. The two universities have been working to build a joint Ph.D. program, and signed an agreement on the first day of the course. 

“We finally put that into place,” says Helmuth, who has been working with faculty at the University of Hong Kong for over a decade. “So even though this dialogue was an undergrad program, it was kind of the kickoff event for that relationship.”

In Hong Kong, in addition to visiting the fish market in Sai Kung, the students explored tidal habitats, snorkeled over corals, and took samples from the harbor. Courtesy photos via Brian Helmuth

In Hong Kong, in addition to visiting the fish market in Sai Kung, the students explored tidal habitats, snorkeled over corals, and took samples from the harbor. They were joined by additional students and instructors in Malaysia, where they visited an oyster hatchery and an aquaculture facility, which provide an alternate way for fishermen to make money. 

“A lot of the fishermen are losing their livelihood, because the fishing stocks have been depleted,” says Jeriyla Kamau-Weng, a second-year student in marine biology. “The Malaysian University is giving them a new means of livelihood. Things like that, helping people adapt to these changing circumstances and teaching them how to be self-sufficient in a new field, are very inspiring.”

The students also studied the Gulf of Maine ecosystem, exploring the coast from Massachusetts to Canada, including touring the Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Plant, which handles sewage from 43 communities around Boston and discharges treated water into the ocean. They compiled their experiences into videos intended to help non-scientists understand the issues facing coastal communities now and in the future.

“A large part of the course was about effective communication, and how we can make sure that stakeholders are engaged in ethical and effective ways,” says Cooper Gould, a fourth-year student majoring in politics, philosophy, and economics. “Scientists are doing great work. But if we can’t talk about it with the people who need to hear it, then it doesn’t really matter.”

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