An Interview with National Geographic Fellow Enric Sala


Today we welcome Dr.
Enric Sala, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer,* whose research in marine
ecology has shed new light on coral reefs systems.  Before coming to National Geographic, Dr.
Sala was a researcher at Spain’s National Council for Scientific Research and a professor at Scripps Institution
of Oceanography.  When he left academia
to concentrate on his research, Dr. Sala employed a rare, optimistic
methodology: He did not study environmental degradation like most scientists,
but concentrated on what pristine ecosystems could teach us.  This optimism led him to study the coral
reefs around the Line Islands in the Pacific Ocean. The islands host different numbers of human
inhabitants, and show how population change directly impacts the surrounding reefs.  His research was  ground-breaking in its
findings and holistic in its approach.

Dr. Sala is now
working with National Geographic to create a platform for different non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) and conservation organizations to discuss environmental innovations,
while continuing his research. Many thanks to Enric Sala for helping us
celebrate environments during Geography Awareness Week!

*In the days since publishing this post
we learned that Enric has newly been named a National Geographic
Fellow. Congratulations, Enric!

1) What inspired you to become a marine ecologist?

I was lucky that two things happened to me when I was a kid
in Spain. First, Jacques Cousteau’s movies were at their prime and shown on TV; I watched
all of them and dreamt about being a diver in the Calypso and explore the
oceans. Second, I lived near the coast and was able to swim and snorkel during
most of my childhood, which gave me a sense of appreciation and love for marine
life first hand, in a way that no book or TV program can.

2) Why is it important to study our oceans?

The oceans are essential to human life and well-being. They
produce more than half of the oxygen that we breathe, regulate the climate, and
provide us with food. We need to understand how to not damage the machine that
supports us!

3)  Please tell us a
little about your scientific findings, specifically from your study in the Line
Islands of the Pacific Ocean.

In 2005 and 2007 we conducted an expedition to Kingman
Reef, in the Line Islands, Central Pacific.
Kingman is a pristine coral reef, a time machine that transported us back
hundreds of years ago. What we found surprised us, because we did not know that
on a pristine, healthy coral atoll, top predators account for 85% of the fish
biomass. This is similar to the Serengeti with five lions per wildebeest! It is
the landscape of fear, where predators roam free and the prey are hiding. We
also found that an intact food web is more resilient to the short term effects
of global warming; that is, on a healthy reef, corals may bleach because of a
warming event, but they can recover relatively quickly.


4) Please describe your theory of doing research.  Why do you study the entire ecosystem, from
algae to sharks, as opposed to one particular component like other scientists?

Ecosystems are composed of many thousands of species
interacting together. We cannot understand how these ecosystems work without
looking at as many of their components as possible. Imagine trying to
understand how Picasso painting by looking at just one color at a time…
Science needs both specialists and generalists, but fortunately, there is an
increasing number of scientists studying ecosystems.

5) Your holistic approach to ecology includes humans as a
vital part of the ecosystem. How do humans affect the ocean, and how are we
affected by the ocean?

We are part of the ecosystem, although because we did not
evolve as humans, I feel we are like an invasive species. The bottom line is
that we take out of the ocean what we like, and throw in what we don’t want. We
need to learn how to live with ocean life in a way that does not jeopardize
what the ocean does for us (oxygen, climate, food, medicines, etc.).

6)  Physical
geography is the study of how environmental phenomena (climate, environmental
hazards, biodiversity distribution) change over space and time.  Geographers already know the importance of
space, however you employ an interesting view on the concept of time in
relation to conservation.  Please explain

The shifting baseline
was firstly used by Daniel Pauly (1995) where each generation of
fisheries scientists accepts as a baseline the stock size and species
composition that occurred at the beginning of their carriers in order to
evaluate changes. However, stock size and species composition vary from
generation to generation because of overfishing. Hence, a gradual shift in
baseline occurs. In other words, what we think is natural is what we saw when
we were kids, or the first time we arrived to a place. Because of the
continuous degradation of the environment, our baselines slide over time, and
our expectations of what’s natural are lowered.

7) What advice do you have for students looking to pursue
a career in Marine Ecology and conservation?

The first thing I would tell them is to spend a lot of time
at sea, on a boat, diving, snorkeling, on tidepools. Get to know the sea and
love it. Get to know what the sea does for us and what we are doing to the sea.
If you truly love the sea, you will not be able to sit idle and watch its
degradation. Then, be prepared to study lots and to work in an almost obsessive
way to fulfill your passion and help ocean life. There are many ways to do it:
become a researcher, work for a conservation organization, be a local community
organizer, write a book or design an ocean website, raise funds for a
conservation. You’ll figure out what’s the best way for you to contribute. We
need your help!


One thought on “An Interview with National Geographic Fellow Enric Sala

Leave a Reply