Researcher in Profile: Dr. Tom Okey

Dr. Tom Okey is Principal of Ocean Integrity Research and an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria. He is a Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation for his work on understanding climate change impacts in marine ecosystems, and a National Geographic Explorer for school-classroom implementation of the Local Environmental Observer (LEO) Network in Canada. He is partially supported by the First Nations Health Authority to implement the LEO Network in British Columbia generally. He was a co-applicant for OceanCanada’s SSHRC grant, and serves on its Pacific Working Group to link his work assessing the health of Canada’s Pacific marine ecosystems.

Dr. Okey is well-known internationally for his collaborative analytical approaches to ecosystem knowledge synthesis, and for constructing highly articulated marine fishery-ecosystem (Ecopath) models such as the newly updated ‘U.S. South Atlantic Region’ model for active management. He recently led a National Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis working group on the social-ecological health and futures of the North Pacific Ocean relating to climate, fisheries, and pollution based in part on an updated version of his first Ecopath model (Prince William Sound), of which he led the collaborative construction in 1999 to understand impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

In the late 1980s, after stints as a commercial fisherman, and a seaman and researcher on research vessels, Dr. Okey conducted original submarine canyon research, leading to a unified understanding of how equilibrium and non-equilibrium forces structure biological communities. He developed and introduced the concept of Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management in 1996; convened the first ever Scientific Advisory Panel on Marine Protected Areas in 1997; convened and led a U.S. national working group on Essential Fish Habitat; helped draft the California Marine Life Management Act of 1999; developed the first and most robust Keystoneness and Interaction Strength Indices for whole biological communities in 2004; led the first mapping of the vulnerability of Canada’s Pacific marine ecosystems to climate change in 2015; and has convened many collaborative workshops and symposia as well as international conferences, some through PICES (North Pacific Marine Science Organization) and the IOC (International Oceanographic Commission).

His work on developing a framework for ecological indicators for Canada’s Pacific Marine Ecosystems was the basis for the establishment of the Coastal Ocean Research Institute of Ocean Wise—a partner of OceanCanada. Like some of the polychaetes and crustaceans he has studied, Dr. Okey likes to think of himself as an ecological fence jumper and renegade.