In 1967, the year Northeastern’s Marine Sci­ence Center was estab­lished, the world was a dif­ferent place. There were four bil­lion fewer people then, and the global tem­per­a­ture was nearly one degree cooler. Indus­trial fishing prac­tices were still rel­a­tively new, and con­crete sea­walls were sprouting up along coast­lines around the globe. New England’s cod fishery and the world’s coral reefs were both still thriving, and the human com­mu­ni­ties and economies that relied on those species were too.

Nearly a half-​​century later, it’s been shown that ver­tical sea­walls are dam­aging the very coasts they were intended to pro­tect and indus­trial fishing prac­tices threaten many of the world’s fisheries.

At a kickoff event last Wednesday night to the inau­gural Sus­taining Coastal Cities con­fer­ence held at North­eastern, world-​​renowned oceanog­ra­pher Sylvia Earle said “we are living in the sweet spot.” With today’s sci­ence and tech­nology, we are begin­ning to under­stand how our past has impacted our present, and how we can use that infor­ma­tion to steer our­selves toward a more sus­tain­able future, she said.

The day­long con­fer­ence last Thursday wel­comed nearly 200 guests from around the world into Curry Stu­dent Center Ball­room, where Marine Sci­ence Center fac­ulty and their col­leagues from leading national and inter­na­tional marine insti­tutes began a new con­ver­sa­tion about the past, present, and future of marine sys­tems and our place within them.

World-​​renowned oceanog­ra­pher Sylvia Earle spoke on Thursday night as a kick-​​off to the Sus­taining Coastal Cities con­fer­ence. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Located 25 min­utes out­side of Boston, Northeastern’s Marine Sci­ence center offers fac­ulty and stu­dents a unique oppor­tu­nity to study imme­diate human impacts on the urban coastal system. Marine sci­ence researchers are building global col­lab­o­ra­tions and con­ducting ground­breaking research in areas like under­water robotics and the effects of cli­mate change on the globe’s coastlines.

A sus­tain­able marine system doesn’t just have more fish, but also a healthy human com­mu­nity and economy,” said Larry Crowder, the director of Stan­ford University’s Center for Ocean Solu­tions. He empha­sized the need to con­sider the social-​​ecological system as fully cou­pled between humans and marine species.

The demand for fish as food, which sup­plies 20 per­cent of the world’s pro­tein, will only sky­rocket as our pop­u­la­tion con­tinues to grow, said Steven Gaines, dean of the Bren School of Envi­ron­mental Sci­ence and Man­age­ment at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­fornia Santa Bar­bara. As such, sustainable—if large scale—fishing prac­tices are becoming ever more critical.

But the moti­va­tion to be sus­tain­able is still over­shad­owed by a short-​​sighted economy, said Dan Adams, assis­tant pro­fessor of archi­tec­ture at North­eastern. “The eco­nomic stream is all about con­sump­tion,” he said. “How do we change it to an economy of con­ser­va­tion and preservation?”

Fish are impor­tant way beyond the pro­tein their bodies pro­vide, said Ove Hoegh-​​Guldberg, director of the Global Change Insti­tute and pro­fessor of marine sci­ence at the Uni­ver­sity of Queens­land. They are an inte­gral part of a com­plex ocean system, which pro­duces 50 per­cent of our oxygen and absorbs 30 per­cent of our excess carbon dioxide and 95 per­cent of our excess heat. Threats to fish pop­u­la­tions equal threats to the oceans, and threats to the oceans mean bigger global envi­ron­mental chal­lenges for our chil­dren and grandchildren.

While the out­look seems grim, Steven Hawkins, dean and pro­fessor at the Uni­ver­sity of Southampton, said “small inter­ven­tions can make a huge dif­fer­ence. It doesn’t take much to reestab­lish a failing oyster com­mu­nity: All you need is the right design and the right frame of mind.”

Geoff Trussell, director of the Marine Sci­ence Center and the visionary behind the first-​​of-​​its-​​kind con­fer­ence, said North­eastern is “bringing people to campus who are inter­ested in walking the walk rather than just talking the talk.” With the Urban Coastal Sus­tain­ability Ini­tia­tive, Trussell and his col­leagues are building an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary pro­gram aimed at taking the dis­cus­sion into the com­mu­ni­ties that are directly affected by the issues at hand.

Our des­tiny is inter­twined with the oceans,” said Hoegh-​​Guldberg. “If they go down, we go down as well.”

Trussell hopes the con­ver­sa­tion started on Thursday will help pre­vent that from happening.