Meet Dr. Peter Ross, Director of Raincoast’s new Healthy Waters program

Dr. Ross has joined our team as Senior Scientist and Director of the Healthy Waters program.

Dr. Peter Ross, an internationally recognized ocean pollution expert, joined the Raincoast team this summer, bringing a wealth of relevant experience and knowledge that we are excited to have. We posed some questions to Peter to help you get to know him and give you a look at what’s to come with the new program he’s developing. 

First off, what is your vision for the Healthy Waters program and what do you hope to accomplish?

Having long been witness to the impacts of pollutants on humans and wildlife, I feel that the time has come for us to collectively roll up our sleeves and do a better job of protecting our environment from chemicals. My hopes for the Healthy Waters initiative is that it demystifies the topic of pollution, brings communities to the table, and fosters the development of action-minded water stewards. Given the intimate connection between Indigenous people and the environment, I am hopeful that Healthy Waters will build trust and capacity in ways that ultimately protects the needs of salmon, whales and people.

How did you end up in contaminants research?

A pivotal moment for me was watching a television report on Tokyo air pollution that was so bad that police officers had to wear gas masks when directing traffic. My five-year old imagination quickly had this leading to an entire planet enshrouded in a toxic smog and people struggling to breathe. My concerns did not subside as I grew up, with a burgeoning chemical and plastic era, and wildlife falling victim to DDT, PCBs, dioxins, mercury and … debris. My work as a young researcher shone a light on acid rain, metals and toxic chemicals, with my graduate research providing ample evidence of consequent harm in fish, seals and whales. My personal and professional journeys have always been intertwined, with my interest in wildlife and the environment being juxtaposed onto a world increasingly impacted by industrial activities, rampant consumerism and the tragedy of the commons.

Can you tell us about your extensive experience and the scientific bonafides that you bring to our team and this program?

I have long pursued rigorous scientific research that supports policy, legislation and best practices, so as to enable practical conservation actions. As I look back at my research experiences in government, universities, and conservation organizations, I do not see ‘science for the sake of science’, but rather I see meaningful research that connects to Indigenous knowledge, conservation practice, and educational outreach. As my expertise grew, I became increasingly called upon as an Expert Witness in legal actions, as an Advisor to governments at different levels, and as an Expert Advisor to multilateral organizations on the global stage. While chagrined to witness widespread environmental decline during my lifetime, I remained optimistic that a more sustainable economic path was possible when I saw my science being used to protect species at risk, identify pollutants of concern in the environment, or contribute to the regulation of harmful chemicals on the marketplace.

Why is Raincoast the right organization for you to build this initiative?

A scientist can practice his or her wares in universities, governments, industry or in the NGO sector, but there are few host organizations where one can connect basic research with positive conservation outcomes. Raincoast stands apart in Canada, being one of the very few NGOs where research is not only valued, but pursued in alignment with Indigenous knowledge, community practice, and pragmatic conservation actions. As a result, Raincoast has become a creative conservation science powerhouse in the country. Raincoast’s track record is stellar, its team is nimble and smart, and its list of conservation wins is growing. With its ecosystem approach to studying bears, wolves, whales and salmon, Raincoast was a natural fit for an initiative that will protect British Columbia’s freshwater and saltwater environments. I am truly humbled and delighted to be part of the Raincoast team.

On a personal level, why is this work important to you?

Our global village is small and crowded, and protecting special places, species, and people will require an outside-the-box way of generating knowledge and enabling conservation. While some will wave their hands and jump up and down, others may simply give in.  I have long held onto the notion that knowledge can lead to the wise application of conservation protections. The time is short. We don’t have to wait for the final verdict on a few priority files, but my commitment to Raincoast and its partners embodies something that we all need – Healthy Waters.  

Canada has 20% of the world’s freshwater and 62% of its lakes – so why should we worry about pollution? 

Canada may be blessed with an abundance of natural resources, including water, but the second largest nation in the world has its share of threats to the quantity and quality of water. As climate change impacts the availability of surface water for drinking, agricultural and industrial uses, an increasingly complex array of chemicals threatens to overwhelm regulators and pose health risks to people and wildlife. The legacy of rampant development and industrialization has left a scar of epic proportions, with acid rain, nutrient pollution and ‘forever chemicals’ tainting water for all. Poor drinking water quality threatens the health and well-being of Canadians from coast to coast, with fecal coliform, lead and cancer-causing disinfection byproducts found in a surprising proportion of homes. And water quality downstream of roads and cities is increasingly impacted by our domestic, transportation, agricultural and industrial activities, with sensitive salmon struggling to survive in areas previously considered to be pristine. With slope comes drainage, effectively connecting every home in British Columbia to the ocean. It was perhaps a shock, but not a surprise that I found BC’s killer whales to be the most contaminated marine mammals in the world. The lesson herein? It’s time to get to work protecting our water from harmful contaminants, and valuing the shared needs of salmon, whales and people.

There’s a photo of you with a seal – what’s the story with that?

‘Borrowing’ young harbour seals from their environment for 20 minutes allows me the opportunity to collect blood samples, take a small blubber biopsy and secure a few whiskers and some fur. My ‘lab animal’ of the ocean – the harbour seal a.k.a Phoca vitulina – has led to dozens of scientific articles detailing trends in food web contamination, the effectiveness of regulations, and the emergence of new chemical concerns. 

Dr. Peter Ross with a Harbour Seal.

Have you ever been bitten by a nonhuman animal during research? Spill.

My work on marine mammals as sentinels of ocean pollution began on Sable Island, Nova Scotia, where I live captured harbour seals to obtain blood samples. While these pinnipeds are patient and provide insight into the world of pollution, they can and do bite. The bites started on Sable Island, continued in the Netherlands during my PhD studies, and did not stop as I worked as a scientist in coastal British Columbia. They might bite out of fear, but they can also look you in the eye, nuzzle your fist and even doze briefly on your lap. If there is anything that I owe my career to, it would be the harbour seal. How many bites? Oh, probably 30 or so…and I deserved every one.

You can help

Raincoast’s in-house scientists, collaborating graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors make us unique among conservation groups. We work with First Nations, academic institutions, government, and other NGOs to build support and inform decisions that protect aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and the wildlife that depend on them. We conduct ethically applied, process-oriented, and hypothesis-driven research that has immediate and relevant utility for conservation deliberations and the collective body of scientific knowledge.

We investigate to understand coastal species and processes. We inform by bringing science to decision-makers and communities. We inspire action to protect wildlife and wildlife habitats.

Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.