Barry Costa-Pierce on Maine and the Arctic

To Barry Costa-Pierce, giving a talk on climate change, the Arctic and what it means for the future of “ocean foods” is like sitting down at a piano and playing a dramatic song.  He starts with the low notes. “It’s very hard to impart a positive message with some of the extraordinary challenges that we face in the ocean. The ocean is, in many ways, in deep, deep trouble.” His audience listens as he presents the startling facts that have become common knowledge. The ocean is warming, the ice caps are melting, and it is impacting delicate ecosystems and people worldwide.

The son of a Portuguese fishing family, Costa-Pierce had a passion and enthusiasm for the ocean from a young age. He worked his way through college, traveled and lived around the world, all the while observing bad practices, poorly conceived initiatives and unsustainable models for working and living together with the ocean. His passion for the sea has inspired a forty-year career working toward progressive change to both preserve the ocean and to build a booming but more sustainable marine economy. 

On this night, as the UNE Henry L. & Grace Doherty Professor of Marine Sciences, he gives a presentation to a crowd of fellow researchers, mariners and interested members of the community at the Portland Public Library, laying out dire numbers to demonstrate that in addition to global warming, the planet is facing a looming food shortage that could lead to environmental catastrophes. By 2050, experts predict there will not be enough food to feed the human race of about 10 billion people. Costa-Pierce says we must harness the vast food supplies of the ocean, that we have an ethical and moral responsibility to get more food from the sea and not the land.

That’s where the tune of his melody begins to turn, because with this stark reality comes great opportunities particularly for marine businesses in Maine and the nations bordering the North Atlantic Ocean. As ice melts, it is opening up new passageways for ships to deliver goods between the northernmost regions of the world. The warming waters also mean evolving fisheries, with species traveling north to new places and at densities never before known.

Costa-Pierce came to the University of New England with a mission to prepare students for this growing global ocean marketplace, but not at the expense of the great conservation issues of the day.  “What attracted me to UNE was the opportunity to work with a really outstanding leadership team here. I knew this was a place where I could develop new programs quickly that would lead to great student achievement, an enhanced marine economy and a sustainable one at that.” According to Costa-Pierce, the next generation of marine science leaders needs to be solidly but broadly trained in areas of marine study beyond biology, physics, and chemistry. “They also have to have a background in the social sciences and social ecology. They have to understand economics and policy and management so they can work with decision makers, with leaders in government, and leaders in non-governmental organizations.” Over the past five years under his leadership, UNE has made amazing progress and realigned its marine programs to meet those needs, offering Oceanography, Ocean Studies and Marine Affairs, Marine Entrepreneurship, and Aquaculture and Aquarium Sciences, in addition to Marine Biology. Marine Sciences renamed its building after a major donor — Arthur P. Girard who gave an island just offshore of campus and a new research vessel to the University. Marine programs accepted its largest-ever incoming freshman class, and marine research grants and contracts are at an all time high.

Costa-Pierce has put UNE at the forefront of economic development within the marine economy in Maine and this entire region. In 2015, UNE entered into a strategic partnership with the New England Ocean Cluster, joining other businesses and universities to form an incubator to develop science-based marine-related products. With these programs and partnerships in place, Costa-Pierce has traveled to the nations bordering the Arctic fostering relationships with universities, business leaders and policy makers. He will lead a session at the Arctic Circle Assembly in Iceland. In October of 2016, many of those Arctic leaders will travel to Portland, Maine for the Senior Arctic Officials Meeting of the Arctic Council, providing further opportunities to strengthen partnerships and fuel innovation.

According to Costa-Pierce, our nation’s leaders must continue down this path in order to address the challenges and opportunities created by climate change, and he is laying the groundwork to ensure that UNE marine science students are at the helm of marine economic growth and conservation. “My hope is that these UNE students will share my mission to increase the social contract for people who work on the water, so that coastal residents understand the extraordinary importance of seafoods to the future survival of this planet, and to their health.”