NS Stories

Learning from the Ocean

Any conversation with a Nova Scotian will eventually arrive at the ocean. We all carry beliefs and memories about our province’s oceanic nature, most of which are rooted in stories about stormy tragedies, majestic tall ships or the exploitation of what seemed like an endless, bottomless resource.

Many of us have recently become excited by the current movement around the ocean sector, connected to news of funding for projects like the Ocean Frontier Institute at Dalhousie University (which recently landed a $220-million investment) or Dartmouth-based COVE, the Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship (it received a $19.7-million investment from the federal and provincial government in September).

Our ocean story is a long and diverse one, so as we dug into the topic of Nova Scotia’s ocean sector for this month’s edition, I wondered what we could learn from a history that takes us from dories of days-gone-by to the grandiose shipbuilding plans for the future.

I was curious to know: what themes should we all be paying attention to in order to maximize the benefit of this industry for tomorrow?

To uncover those themes, I connected with some political, academic, organizational and community leaders in this space:

  • Mayor Mike Savage — Halifax’s unofficial chief marketing officer
  • Dr. Martha Crago — vice president, research, Dalhousie University
  • Jim Hanlon — CEO, Institute for Ocean Research Enterprise
  • Jennifer Angel — Acting CEO, Waterfront Development
  • Nancy Phillips — vice president, trade and international activities, Halifax Partnership and the executive director of the Halifax Gateway Council
  • Claude O’Hara — vice president, corporate development, Glooscap Ventures, former sword fisherman (and my dad)


It’s in our blood

A picture of what’s called the Spar on the Leaside. My grandfather, Claude O’Hara Sr. is on the bottom rung and from this position, he’s on the lookout and steering the boat toward swordfish.

I’m a descendant of a traditional fishing family. Generations of O’Hara men, ending with my father, Claude O’Hara, fished the waters from the Grand Banks to Cape Hatteras in the Carolinas.

There’s no one better than my father to help me understand our traditional ocean roots. As a child and young adult growing up in Louisbourg he experienced the ups and downs of the fishing industry first hand.

“I can remember going to the lighthouse with mom and my siblings,” dad said. “She would gather us all together after a bad storm and we’d wait on the hill for dad and the boat to come in. Every time we thought ‘this is the time he doesn’t make it.’ You continuously lived with the danger of the ocean and that taught all of us lifelong lessons.”

Through my conversation with him and with the sector leaders, it became more and more apparent the lessons the ocean taught my dad are the same themes emerging in today’s ocean industry.

It seems John F. Kennedy had it right: “We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch — we are going back from whence we came.”


Have a little respect

Growing up, it was a household rule: you must always respect the power of the ocean.

“You continuously lived with the danger of the ocean and the unpredictability of the incomes and life. That created the respect for the ocean,” my father said. “If we do nothing else, we need to entrench that sense of respect in people who are working with this resource today.”

The good news is this sense of respect is broadening dramatically. The question leaders and ocean experts are asking themselves is: how can we turn the protection of the ocean into a world-class economic advantage, rather than exploiting it for the same means?

This is the new version of respecting our ocean and it’s a powerful one.

“The ocean has always defined us, but we need to start thinking about it in terms of sustainability,” Mayor Savage said. “We need to recognize both the opportunities and threats it presents to us and, in a good way, exploit it, but do it smarter and more sustainably. You can’t take more out than you put in.”


My grandfather’s boat (and the one my dad fished on), Leaside. 60ft.fishing vessel, built in the mid-50s that sailed out of Louisbourg Harbour. (Contributed)

Everybody get together

Through initiatives like COVE and the Ocean Frontier Institute, one of the most powerful things happening in Nova Scotia’s ocean sector is the clustering of knowledge.

Clustering is about bringing different aspects of an industry together — from academia to business — to create critical mass that builds unparalleled momentum and international influence.

“When you have a cluster, companies tend to follow it because there is a deep talent pool and a great depth to choose from. As companies come together, those that have an expertise in one area can partner with another. We have more than 200 ocean-related companies, which means there’s a great talent pool and you can start to build the critical mass you need to be a world leader in the ocean sector,” Nancy Phillips explained.

Mayor Savage agrees critical mass is building: “When I look ahead, I want to see this whole area — from the library and the new Dalhousie Idea Building on Spring Garden, all the way to the new Discovery Centre on the waterfront and across to COVE and the community college — as one big cluster of ocean-related ideas.”

We may not have always called it clustering, but thepracticee of coming together isn’t new for those involved in Nova Scotia’s ocean economy.

“When you grow up in a fishing town, you quickly learn that you’re all in it together. The ocean taught us that to be successful, we needed to work together collectively. Our survival depended on it,” my father explained.


Plan for the future

The ocean may be a constantly-available resource, but its nature is a precarious one.

Traditional fishing families learned that when times were good, you enjoyed them, but you always planned for a future where that may not be the case.

Today, that future planning is coming in how we create and educate the next generation of ocean sector experts and employees.

“A colleague of mine, Dr. Sherry Scully (director, Learning and Organizational Development at the Institute for Ocean Research Enterprise), recently completed an extensive survey of Nova Scotian middle school students and their perceptions about future jobs related to the ocean,” Jim Hanlon said. “The responses were stark. A high percentage of middle school students are not attracted to careers in and around the ocean; they see it as ‘dirty’ and ‘dangerous’. We need to remove that fear so the next generation sees our ocean as a place of beauty and opportunity.”

Mayor Savage agrees, arguing that it’s youth who will ultimately benefit from this opportunity: “They’re the ones we want to build this industry for. Which means they need to understand how oceans will provide opportunities and how they can prepare to receive that benefit.”

See the bigger potential 

I don’t immediately think of traditional fishing as an entrepreneurial endeavour, but my father provided a different perspective.

“Every fisherman I’ve ever known is an entrepreneur,” he said. “You make your own opportunities and you work with the seasons, following the catch that’s available to you at any given time.”

It’s precisely that innovative and entrepreneurial mindset that’s revealing a world of new possibilities in Nova Scotia’s ocean sector.

“A lot of people still think of the ocean and oceans jobs as food from the sea. That’s not a bad thing, but we’re so much more than that,” Phillips explained. “Shipbuilding, the port, insurance companies and legal firms that specialize in the ocean economy, NSCC, underwater rovers, the list goes on. We call ourselves an ocean city for a reason.”

The result of this diversity is Nova Scotia is building a strong industry-led sector that will shape our collective economic future for the better.

“The ocean business sector in Nova Scotia is very vibrant, export-oriented and focused on delivering profit from the sale of goods and services. That’s what all business should focus on. I sometimes worry that we over think things in our attempt to grow the economy,” Hanlon said. “Business has to lead this growth, and that growth comes from profitable sales.”


You can’t shy away from leadership

In our ever-humble Nova Scotian way, we can often downplay our own excellence. But leadership is something that has a long history when it comes to our work with the ocean.

“Growing up in a family where your father was the captain of the boat you learned teamwork, but more importantly, leadership. Decisions have to be made and someone has to step up and make informed decisions. You can’t be shy to be the leader,” my dad said.

That advice continues to be relevant as Nova Scotia solidifies its spot as a global force.

“People are working around the same table trying to hammer out world-class products that utilize our untapped potential. We’re doing incredible research that’s at the highest level,” says Jennifer Angel. “Optimism breeds optimism and we need to be positive, consistent, clear and proud about the leadership role we’re taking. What we’re doing here is absolutely world class.”

By Collette O’Hara from the Chronicle Herald, November 1, 2016

All Conversations Learning from the Ocean

3 replies, 3 voices Last updated by  Nancy M Watson 3 years, 1 month ago
  • Latest Replies
  • Nancy M Watson @nwatson

    I very much like the notion of poets and pragmatists. It captures a duality at our core that contributes to making us “Nova Scotian.”

  • Tony Lamport @tonylamport

    I think of Crane as more Slender than Stocky but I have a comment to add to this provocative article. The Brand NS Initiative observed a few years ago that growing up close by the beauty and the danger of the sea had made Nova Scotians both poets and pragmatists. See another comment elsewhere on this topic.

  • Michael Chender @mchender

    A good complement to this article is the initiative that Crane Stocky started, the Nova Scotia Sea School,

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