Blue Economy Convergence Conversation: Kenneth Halanych of the University of North Carolina Wilmington Center for Marine Science

Kenneth Halanych is a career academic. As the newly appointed executive director of the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) Center for Marine Science, he brings a professional focus on understanding marine organisms and how they evolve in changing marine systems. He is concerned about the massive, possible unwitting, impact humanity is making on our marine systems. The greatest population density is close to the coast or waterways. That fact alone points to the impact humans are making on coastal regions, but increasingly, the impact is reaching farther out into the ocean. And most people do not even think about the consequences of choices like going to the store to buy produce. If it is locally grown on a farm in the United States, the vegetable or fruit may have been treated with fertilizers or pesticides that ultimately flow through waterways into rivers and then oceans, which then can impact fish habitats and tourism.

In 2010, tragedy struck with the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and oil spill. Ken got involved as a member of the creation of the BP-sponsored Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GRI) Research Board. On May 24, 2010, shortly after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, BP committed $500 million over a period of ten years to fund independent research into the impact of the oil spill and its associated response on the environment and public health in the Gulf of Mexico. Given this role, Ken has a long association with the Blue Economy concept and a great appreciation of sustainable usages of our oceans for the economic health of local and regional communities, both in the near term and for the future.

In this 2021 Blue Economy Convergence Conversation, Ken and I discuss the inextricable link between human societies and Marine systems.


Deb: Let’s start by describing what you see as the cycle of impact between people and marine organisms and animals.

Ken: That’s an important place to start this discussion because it is the issue of “out of sight, out of mind.”  So many people only consider the ocean for as far as they can see it. They say, “it’s big and  it’s fast, so we can’t really impact it.” If people have awareness, it might be that they have heard about the dead zones in our oceans and wonder if they can regenerate. 

Answering that question is complex. Not all dead zones are natural. But many tend to be seasonal and natural, especially in higher latitudes. Ocean dynamics and the way the ocean ecosystem responds to things like algal blooms are sort of like what we see on land when things come to life in the spring, grow throughout the summer, then regress in the fall. This happens in marine systems as well. 

Generally speaking, however, the common perception that there is no way we can impact the ocean because it is so vast it is patently false. I have had the fortune to do a number of major oceanographic cruises where I would be in the middle of the Atlantic or Pacific for three to five weeks at a time. I would still see trash from humans floating out in the middle of nowhere. I have also gotten to do a lot of work in Antarctica. On my last cruise, we were taking sediment from the glaciers. There was visible plastic in the sediment. Various types of manmade chemicals can be found in deep sea sediments around the globe. So people are having an impact. Many times we don’t understand the impact or that it could take several years for the effect to build up. But even though humans have only been around on the planet for a short time, we have created so much impact. But there is hope. We can alleviate or reverse some things we have done, we just have to be willing to commit to doing so.

Deb: I had the chance to travel to Antarctica too. What I didn’t realize before going was that it is such an important part of our global freshwater ecosystem. How important are Antarctica and the Arctic to us all?

Ken: Let me start with the Arctic. I like to read books written about explorers in the 1800 and 1900s who were trying to sail across the Arctic to find the hidden passage that we now know as the Northwest Passage. It is a sea route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean through the Arctic Archipelago. Explorers first began to search for this route in the 1500s in hopes of finding a new trade route. For centuries, the route was impassible because of weather and sea ice. But today, the ice cap in the Arctic is basically gone. There is still ice, but within just the course of my lifetime, the thickness of the ice and the extent of the ice pack has greatly changed. In fact, in the summer of 2007, the route was entirely ice-free for the first time in recorded history. This change is primarily due to global climate change.

The changes happening in Antarctica are as real but the scarier thing with the Antarctic is there is way more freshwater tied up in Antarctica. It has bigger glaciers and much more ice mass. My first trip to the Antarctic peninsula was in 1999, and my last trip to the region was at the end of 2019. I saw obvious differences in the ice. Some of the islands were much more exposed than they used to be. The other thing with the Antarctic is there are huge glaciers that jut out over the ocean water. When they break off, they can create icebergs, which move out over the water. It is really hard to fathom the size of these things. I’ve been on a ship cruising by a big ice tablet and it has taken over half an hour to get past it. Some of the icebergs that have broken off recently are the size of Manhattan or Rhode Island. It may stand 300 feet tall out of the water and the portion below the water is much larger. The amount of water this represents is just staggering. We are seeing changes in sea level because this ice is melting. It may only be a couple of millimeters or an inch. That may not feel like much, but it can be really significant in low-level communities when you compound it with a storm surge or unusually high tide. There is no way to reverse what is going to happen in the next decade or so.

Deb: How do you define the Blue Economy?

Ken: There are a number of different definitions for the Blue Economy, but essentially, it is an economy that is somehow dependent on marine systems or water systems. At its core, it recognizes that we are dependent on marine systems. When some people use the term Blue Economy, they are also thinking about sustainability and doing things in a way where we can responsibly utilize the environment and not cause too much long-term damage. The layperson is likely to think of fisheries and things we directly pull out of the ocean. I would add that another big sector of the Blue Economy is energy efficiency, including offshore wind farms. 

Deb: What is the potential value of the Blue Economy for Wilmington? 

Ken: The Blue Economy opportunity is potentially huge. Wilmington has a special place given its size and proximity to the ocean. To get to a city of comparable size, you have to go all the way up to Norfolk, Virginia, or down to Savannah, Georgia. Many of the discussions about the Blue Economy center on economic development or tourism because people are coming to interact with the ocean. But at UNCW we are also trying to focus on products that can be generated from the oceans. Things like pharmaceuticals or natural products might have benefits to society. These things are all a part of the Blue Economy too. Another value of the term Blue Economy is to remind us that not everything comes from land. There is this whole bigger part of the planet that we are utilizing that is very important to human society.

It would be great if Wilmington leaders reminded people that as we focus on the Blue Economy, things get developed. There are reasons we’re going in the directions we’re going. When we talk about sustainability, it’s not just people saying we need to do this but there are really profound reasons for action. There is strong science backing it up the need to be sustainable. It’s unfortunate that there’s an issue of regaining the public’s trust around such issues. The almighty dollar drives a lot of things and has become cautious of messages that appear to not be fully transparent. Many people are concerned about what it will personally cost them. 

There is a real cost to energy consumption and carbon emissions. If we don’t pay attention to methane and carbon we are going to be paying more for flood insurance rates because of increasing hurricane activity. The Blue Economy has a direct-to-consumer side with the items that are purchased, but there’s a huge science side that is focused on sustainability. We want to employ better things like weather, buoys, and weather satellites to track storms better with more precision. If we can advance our capability it helps many other areas. If we can do a better job of predicting where hurricanes are going to go, we can predict potential flooding better, that’s going to positively impact the tourism dollars or homeowners’ bottom line.

Deb: You have a very important leadership role representing science for the Blue Economy, how will you build the trust that is needed?

Ken: Science is an ongoing process and we are constantly learning. We get new insights and refine what we know. Scientists work with best guesses and refine assumptions and steps forward when a guess turns out to be incorrect. And science is moving incredibly quickly. Computers have given us the ability to analyze large data sets faster and provide much better insights into things we are studying. It’s forcing scientists to keep up. For example, I do a lot of genetic work and what we know now versus what we knew even five years ago has changed radically. It doesn’t mean that we knew it was wrong, it just means that some parts of it were not accurate. The general ideas were directionally correct, just some aspects needed to be tweaked. 

With climate change, we have known that changes are happening and discussing potential impacts of humanity on the environment since the fifties and sixties. Over the decades, we have figured out that the temperature is increasing. We may not have had a good handle on how quickly it was increasing or what the side effects might be, but as time has gone on, we have learned more, and refined our ideas and knowledge.

Climate change is fundamental. It is going to impact human society on a large scale. We are trying to forecast what the impacts could be. We are trying to make predictions that are dependent on the models we currently have and use. As we learn more, we refine those models. It may seem that the answers are always changing, but the general message is still the same. It’s the details that are changing. That’s just part of the scientific process. 

People try to make things polarized. They’ll often take an issue and make it have two sides. Especially in science. They’ll say not all scientists agree. That’s true. Not all scientists agree, but that is also part of the process. We have to debate and speak with each other to try to figure out which arguments are valid and which are not. We debate which data seems to be robust and fit with our understanding and which data seemed to tell us something else is going on. The role of scientists is to demystify science.

Deb: What is your greatest hope for the future?

Ken: My greatest hope and concern is sustainability.  I want us as a society and as a species to finally figure out how to get to a much better place where we aren’t damaging and destroying the environment. I would love it if we could get to a point where we could talk about growth more broadly than economics. Not everything needs to grow all the time forever. Presumably, there’s a point where we have enough of what we need and we don’t need more. Someday maybe we will have a system where everybody has enough and is content with that. It sounds pie in the sky, but I do worry a bit about the culture’s intense focus on economic growth versus a more balanced view of economic sustainability. If everybody is taken care of and content, why do we need exponential growth all the time? I think a lot of people think of sustainability as we have to stop doing what we’re doing. That is one side of sustainability, the other side of sustainability is what we can do better or can we do with a lower impact. To me, this thought is wrapped up in the idea of continual growth. Economic resilience is a better term than economic growth because it allows for growth and change.


Kenneth reminds us that instead of organizations creating knowledge through their own centralized process, a new normal has R&D accessing and leveraging externally-existing knowledge from sources that are as likely across the globe as they are across the street. This includes reaching out to the spectrum of humanities. This new type of R&D is difficult and disruptive. It is not an easy task and it demands courage. We’ll succeed in creating sustainability and the Blue Economy by unleashing our innovators from the constraints of the traditional R&D process to tap into other valuable sources of insight and technology innovation.

Deborah Westphal is a leader in future-focused strategy. In her book Convergence, she leverages more than 30 years of experience helping the world’s most innovative business and government leaders to challenge biases, ignite ideas, and build connections. She delivers this rich insight with an empathetic and thought-provoking writing style to chart a path for readers. Throughout the book, personal stories and historical examples highlight convergences that span the globe, impacting everything from global supply chains to climate change, and reshaping the future of business, technology, and humanity everywhere.

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