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
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 this.
The shifting baseline syndrome 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!