We’re joined this week by Dr. Reem Al Mealla, a marine biologist based in Bahrain who has led a number of initiatives focused on ocean conservation and preservation of biodiversity. Dr. Mealla explains why oceans are critical to food security and shares her advice if you’re looking to pursue a career in marine biology or ecology.

One Action: Dr. Reem Al Mealla
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[00:00 - 00:21] Hi, I'm Rona Halabi and welcome to One Action, a podcast by PepsiCo where we highlight contributors to the sustainable food system across the region. I'm joined on the show today by Dr. Reem Al Mealla, a marine biologist based in Bahrain, who has led numerous initiatives focused on ocean conservation and preservation of biodiversity. 

[00:21 - 00:47] I asked Dr. Al Mealla to what extent we rely on the ocean for food security. Over 4.3 billion people worldwide basically are reliant on the protein source from seafood, almost 15% of that protein. But what's even more amazing is, this is partial, but 1 billion people around the world completely 

[00:47 - 01:08] and primarily depend on seafood for their source of protein. And this reliance is very much seen and felt in small island developing states like, say, Bahrain, say, let's say the French Polynesia, Indonesia, the Philippines, most countries 

[01:08 - 01:34] that really heavily, completely and utterly, I would say, depend on their fisheries. So that is why it's very, very important for us to ensure that we preserve and conserve our marine environments. There was a paper that was recently published by the High Level Panel on Sustainable Ocean Economy. And the paper basically showed that with better management and technological innovation, the 

[01:34 - 01:55] ocean could basically provide six times more food than it does today. And that's basically more than two thirds of the animal protein that we will need to feed the world in the future based on the Food and Agriculture Organization. That's the FAO. 

[01:55 - 02:15] And so it's so important and crucial for us to make sure that we protect all the ecosystems in our oceans. When we say biodiversity, we hear it a lot, but, you know, a lot of people don't necessarily know what it means. What are we really referring to when we talk about biodiversity? 

[02:15 - 02:40] Biodiversity is all about this variability in terms of genetics, in terms of species and ecosystems. That's why in certain areas of the world, you've got coral reefs and in other places you have rainforests and in other places you have Antarctica, for example. And this variety is what makes biodiversity and makes it all unique. 

[02:40 - 03:02] Doctor, going back a little bit to the effects of climate change on small islands. I mean, you have conducted fieldwork in very different countries and islands from Bahrain to Madagascar. And I'm interested to know about the effects of climate change on specifically these small island nations and by extension, their food security. 

[03:02 - 03:23] Definitely. Now, one of the things that you really feel and I think everybody's felt is rising temperatures. The Gulf is a very, very special place, the Arabian Gulf, and it's so special to an extent that we are technically in the Gulf living the temperatures that the IPCC report, which 

[03:23 - 03:48] is a report that is put together by the UNFCCC, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. So the IPCC reports basically outline that there is a prediction that the world temperatures are going to rise by up to five to six degrees in the future. We're trying to keep it down and we have a deadline for it. 

[03:48 - 04:09] But in reality, the Gulf is already experiencing what is projected for the rest of the world. And to just give you an example, so coral reefs in, let's say, places like Indonesia, the Caribbean and other places like that, experience temperature fluctuation between 

[04:09 - 04:37] 26 degrees and 32 degrees. Once it exceeds 32, the coral start to feel a bit stressed and they basically bleach. And I'm sure the world has heard about the Great Barrier Reef bleaching and in 2016, where they named it the Godzilla bleaching event. Now, in the Gulf, our temperatures fluctuate between 16 degrees Celsius to 36 degrees Celsius, 

[04:37 - 05:03] and it could go up to 37, 38. So that's already five to six degrees more than anywhere else in the world. So technically, we are the window to the future for everybody outside the Gulf. If we can just understand how our ecosystems continue to basically operate and exist in these very extreme, harsh environments, we will be able to guide the world into what 

[05:03 - 05:27] the future holds and how to adapt to it. Another thing that most people forget to talk about and what we scientists call the silence killer is actually ocean acidification. Because with warming temperatures and the excess carbon emissions that are in the air that dissolves in that the ocean takes in, this heat and warming alters the ocean's basically 

[05:27 - 05:51] chemistry. And so with that, it means that all these creatures that make up their body from calcium carbonate cannot build their body. Imagine our human bones or teeth put in acid, what happens? It dissolves. And so imagine corals, bony fish, crustaceans like we've got, for example, oysters, mussels, 

[05:51 - 06:16] they won't be able to form their bodies. And then there goes our food security because we won't be able to harvest if something cannot even exist. So these are just examples of climate impacts that are seen and felt in areas around the world and will heavily, heavily impact small island developing states. Doctor, going back to your point about rising temperatures and the need to, you know, as 

[06:16 - 06:38] much as possible, keep them down. How does the future look for you? Is it something that we can achieve or is it something that is hard to achieve at this point? I believe if everybody does their part, it is something achievable. And what we must never estimate is nature. Once humans are flexible and willing to change, nature will also respond with that flexibility 

[06:38 - 07:02] and change and positive change. If we are unable to keep up, there will come a time when it'll be too late for us. But when it is too late, it's not going to be nature's problem. It's going to be ours because the world has existed through different eras across time, but humans have not. And one thing that most people forget about, and it is a topic that is currently being 

[07:02 - 07:25] negotiated under the UNFCCC, is becoming climate refugees because of impacts like sea level rise, because of drought, because of lack of food security. And this is already happening in areas like the French Polynesia and areas like in Fiji, where people are starting to move towards Australia and New Zealand because their islands 

[07:25 - 07:46] are going underwater. But then that brings up a new different challenge for the world, because how are we going to integrate people? How are we going to feed people? How are we going to be able to cater towards this influx that's coming in? So this is something we need to really awaken people's thoughts and awareness so that we 

[07:46 - 08:10] can think about it. You know, going back to you being a biologist, I'm wondering, you know, about the challenges, the day-to-day challenges that you face as a marine biologist. That is always a very trick question because it's so easy to look at all that's difficult. But I love also thinking that there's a lot of positivity and change. 

[08:10 - 08:35] We definitely feel the change, especially since COVID. So in terms of challenges, I think a big challenge that I face and a lot of my colleagues who are marine biologists and ecologists face is lack of funding to conduct research. And when we talk about research, I'm talking about ecological research to be more specific, because most of the funding that is available, especially in our region, is much put into, 

[08:35 - 08:58] shall we say, data management, economic research, commercial research, marketing research, but very little goes into ecological research. And this is so important because ecological research basically brings up useful data that enables scientists to give to policy makers and decision makers the required information 

[08:58 - 09:20] to make informed decisions that would really help effectively put together basically actions that will mitigate and adapt to climate change. Another challenge that marine biologists face is being given a seat at the negotiation table. So most of the time during the negotiations, it's mostly the diplomats and the economists 

[09:20 - 09:41] that are out there. But it's very rare when there is a full team with scientists integrated convincing young people to go into this field. And this is something that's really a big problem. We are facing a generation gap, especially in our Arab region. 

[09:41 - 10:01] And so we need that to change. We need more young people to come into this field. But I also see that the problem, the reason why a lot of young people don't go into this is because it's not really easy to access the required education and training. There are very few institutions that people can go to. 

[10:01 - 10:24] Like let's take Bahrain, for example. We're in 2023 now, and there's still no undergraduate bachelor's degree in environmental science or ecology or marine biology. So any Bahraini who wants to actually go into this field needs to leave the country. But overall, on a more positive note, it's very heartwarming to be invited to different 

[10:24 - 10:44] events and podcasts where people are genuinely interested in the work that my colleagues and me do. And I feel like it's a positive step towards change. When we come back, Dr. Al Mealla shares her advice if you're looking to pursue a career in marine biology or ecology. 

[10:44 - 11:05] That's right after this short break. Welcome back. I'm Rona Halabi and you're listening to One Action with our guest Dr. Reem Al Mealla. Did you know that 70% of our oxygen actually comes from the oceans? This is why it is so critical for us to act and preserve our ocean and its biodiversity. 

[11:05 - 11:26] The first thing that we all can do on an individual level is definitely be mindful of our footprints. What cars we drive, how much we travel per year, can we make this easier, what food we eat, and also supporting our local people. Another thing that's very important that I find is education. 

[11:26 - 11:48] If you are someone who likes to join a book club or has these challenges where you want to read 12 books a year or something, make sure one of them is really focused on environment so you learn something from it. If you work in an organization, basically speak to your sustainability officer. What is it that you're doing this year to support the environment? 

[11:48 - 12:10] Beach cleanups are no longer supposed to be part of your CSR or something you do for the environment. No, this is, do you need someone to tell you that make sure you shower every day or shower whenever? No, it's part of your lifestyle. Cleaning beaches is part of our lifestyle. It is not something for you to put on your sustainability report at the end of the year 

[12:10 - 12:33] and say you've contributed to environmental conservation. We need to move away and develop. So as a corporate organization, if you have your budgets allocated for environmental sustainability, reach out to your researchers and local researchers, give your scientists that money and come up with a project that would contribute towards achieving the SDGs and make sure you generate 

[12:33 - 12:58] data that will help policy makers basically make informed decisions. And the most important thing I would say, if you're someone who believes in charity or likes to give some money to serve different social problems that we have in our communities, I would also encourage you to maybe put in a small amount to an environmental NGO that 

[12:58 - 13:24] does work. And this is something I personally do every single year. It doesn't have to be a big amount. It can just be like if we're talking dollars, like $20. Those are just ideas that I'm throwing out there and I hope it helps people. And how do you describe the impact that you have, the work that you do? So I've been working as a marine biologist for almost 14 years now. 

[13:24 - 13:46] And I started at a very early age. In the beginning, I felt like my work had no impact except amongst us scientists. But in the last five years, I've seen the impact of my work based on different things. Number one, shall we say in Bahrain at the end of 2021, Bahrain announced that it was 

[13:46 - 14:06] going to build five new cities as part of its economical recovery. And building these cities means that they're going to be reclaiming some of the biggest reef areas in the country. Of course, a lot of people were like, but why? But then a lot of people also supported it by saying, it's okay, we have no coral in Bahrain. 

[14:06 - 14:27] It's so hot, everything is dead. So there's probably nothing. So there's nothing for us to lose. But then when I started putting up my videos that I would take during my dives, the data that I've been collecting, pictures of sharks, pictures of sightings, people were like, this is all in Bahrain, this is all in the Gulf. 

[14:27 - 14:48] I'm like, yeah. And they're like, what do you mean this is here? I'm like, that's it, we're not talking about it. Let me show you what we have. And it's been incredible and very overwhelming because people are like, we don't even know people go into these things. And even the governmental offices would approach me and be like, oh, we didn't realize that there was still live coral. Can you share data with us? 

[14:48 - 15:12] Can you help us, you know, with our plans, you know, to be able to, for example, designate certain protected areas. And so when we put out our information, and based on the work that we do, we feel the impact, especially when you see it being cited in governmental reports. And that's when you know, you know, your work is finally contributing towards something 

[15:12 - 15:33] good and positive. Doctor, in addition to your work, you are actually active in supporting women scientists, specifically from the Gulf. So can you tell us more about what you have been doing to encourage and empower more women 

[15:33 - 15:54] in environmental sciences from the region? So it's been 12 years since I've come back to Bahrain to actually actively work. And for those 12 years that I've been diving and working in the seas of Bahrain, I've been the only woman marine biologist, Bahraini woman marine biologist. So at some point, it got very lonely. 

[15:54 - 16:22] And so I thought to myself, how can I create this change? In 2012, the UNFCCC COP 18 actually came to our region, it came to Qatar. And when I was at that COP, I realized that there was a women and gender constituency. And there was a group, which go by the name of WEDO, it's an NGO based in New York. 

[16:22 - 16:46] And it stands for Women's Environment and Development Organization. And they were basically training women from developing countries on how to be negotiators, climate negotiators. And there were no Arabs. And I was like, why? And that's when it hit me that there were very few women going into these arenas. 

[16:46 - 17:06] And I thought to myself, this needed to change. And that's what stemmed that, shall we say, passion to empower and help other women. And I'm very grateful to WEDO, because they took me on board and trained me when it came to women, women's rights and gender and how I can help in integrating these policies in 

[17:06 - 17:28] normal like climate policies, but also within my work. So I went around trying to find funding from different corporate and governmental entities in order to hold a workshop to bring together women in the Gulf that work on environment. However, I was very unsuccessful because nobody really felt like it was important at the time. 

[17:28 - 17:51] But when COVID hit and the world went virtual, I thought to myself, why don't I just do it virtual for now and then the future can be something else. And so I put out a call for all women in the Gulf to just contact me so we can build this network. And the response was so overwhelming and so positive. It was amazing. I got to meet an Emirati entomologist. 

[17:51 - 18:12] I got to meet marine biologists in Oman, and they're all women. I got to meet botanists. I got to meet vets, women vets in Kuwait, you know, and it just brought us all together. And some of the messages I was receiving, they were saying, I thought I was the only one. I'm still looking for funds in order to bring us all together in one room to be able to 

[18:12 - 18:33] lay down the foundation to help young women coming into the field so that they can have mentors. Because at the moment, we still don't have mentors. Like if I ask you, Rona, tell me or give me a name of an Arab celebrity that is an advocate for climate change, or give me a name of a famous marine biologist, or give me a name. 

[18:33 - 18:54] We don't have any in the Middle East. But if you look at Hollywood, everybody knows Leonardo DiCaprio is someone that's very well known to love, you know, to fight for climate change. Everybody knows that, shall we say, Emma Watson is very much sustainable fashion and like, let's go, you know, environmentally friendly. 

[18:54 - 19:14] David Attenborough, Jacques Cousteau, where are the Arab versions of these people? They're not there yet. And we need to create that. And we can only create that once we identify people and basically tell the world the work, the amazing work that they do. And so this is what I've been doing in the last couple of years, trying to build and 

[19:14 - 19:40] help support other women to be able to really make our work positive. That's actually amazing and very inspiring. And I just love your energy and how passionate you are about this. And doctor, how would you encourage our listeners to go into that field of study? I think the first thing I would say is, becoming a marine biologist or an ecologist or anything 

[19:40 - 20:05] to do with the field is something so unique. You know, not many people do it, mainly because too many people are afraid, afraid that they won't have security in the future, afraid that they might not make the money they want to build the life they want, afraid of a lot of things. However, I always say, you know, dare the world, dare the world to watch you step into 

[20:05 - 20:28] this space and create that change because you will find something that you will never find in a normal day job, especially from starting to understand how every living cell operates, how you can help fishing communities. And being a marine biologist, in my view, is you do everything, the environmental work, the social work and the economic world. 

[20:28 - 20:53] So it's also you giving back to the world whilst the world gives you back. And it's something that I personally experience. I'm always happy. And most people always tell me, Rimi, you're never stable. Like, how are you happy? And I'm like, because my job is so fulfilling. So why wouldn't I be happy? And good things always come when good intentions are planted. So I would say definitely go for it and definitely reach out to someone, even if it's on social 

[20:53 - 21:14] media, who's doing something you want to do, be it being an entomologist, a marine biologist, because I would say nine out of 10 times, you know, people will respond back because everyone's excited to welcome the next generation. You can reach out to Dr. Al Mealla on Instagram and on her website reemalmealla dot com.

[21:14 - 21:37] You'll find the links in the episode show notes. Thank you for joining us today. One Action is brought to you by PepsiCo and is hosted by me, Rona Halabi. We're produced by Mourad Ben Ayed, May Barber, Maariyah Bhari and Chirag Desai, with support from Nathalie Hatoum. See you again next week. 

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