Q&A: An Ecologist's Passion for Preserving the Ocean's Pristine Places

National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala leads a project that aims to identify and protect the world’s most unspoiled marine environments.

Enric Sala, leader of National Geographic's Pristine Seas project, took time out from packing for a voyage to the Galápagos Islands to answer a few questions about his goal to protect the ocean's last wild places.

A widely published marine ecologist who grew up on Spain's Mediterranean coast, Sala is seeking to identify isolated places that warrant protection from overfishing. His expedition to Kiribati's southern Line Islands in the remote South Pacific is featured in the September issue of National Geographic magazine.

What was your most memorable moment during the southern Line Islands expedition?

There were so many! Swimming over a pavement of giant clams in the lagoon of Millennium Atoll [also called Caroline Island] and diving with 75 gray reef sharks are two of my most vivid memories.

What new places are on your horizon for the Pristine Seas project?

We have a long list. Next is Palau in September this year, where President Remengesau wants to create a very large marine reserve. And in October we are going to remote Rapa Island, in southern French Polynesia, and to the nearby Marotiri islets, which are a few rocks sticking out of the ocean.

With Pristine Seas, do you get the feeling that it's a race against time—that you're trying to protect these least-modified parts of the ocean before fishing fleets or mining corporations reach them? I'm thinking about those fishing hooks your dive team found in the mouths of sharks at Millennium Atoll.

It's so frustrating to go to one of these remote places in the hope that it will be totally pristine, and then see sharks with hooks on their mouths. People have said to me that we shouldn't tell the world about these places, that we're inviting disaster. I disagree. If I can find out about where the last pristine places are, you can be sure that the long-distance fishing fleets already know.

These places have remained pristine until now because of their remoteness, but there are no remote places anymore. So yes, we are in a race against time. We give ourselves five more years to try to get as many of these places protected [as we can].

I'm wondering about the term "pristine." Isn't there a risk that by labeling some parts of the ocean "pristine," you're going down the same two-track approach as on land—dividing the world into "protection" areas and "production" areas? Humans protect a certain percentage of the planet, and that justifies total exploitation of the rest. Is that a sustainable approach in the long term?

This is an academic discussion. Today only one percent of the ocean is fully protected from fishing. The other 99 percent is fished in some way or another. Almost the entire ocean is a "production" area! And much of it is mismanaged, with many species collapsing and habitats being destroyed.

We need to change this. We need much more of the ocean protected—at least 20 percent. And really soon. And we also need to reduce fishing capacity by half, and eliminate the perverse government subsidies that perpetuate the collapse of marine wildlife.

When you think about the successes of the Pristine Seas project—the marine reserves and other forms of protection your group has been able to achieve through working with governments—are there any particular marine creatures that you feel you've "made a difference" for?

The beauty of these large reserves is that it's actually tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of species that benefit. But if I had to choose, I'd say it's the large animals that benefit the most—the sharks and other predators. These are the first species to go when humans get to a place. When I'm diving and see sharks it gives me hope.

If you believed in reincarnation, what marine creature would you most want to come back as?

A dolphin, because I think they are always laughing at us.

In 2011 you advocated setting aside 20 percent of the oceans as no-take marine reserves. Some marine scientists think that 20 percent isn't enough, that maybe we need 50 percent or more. What's your current feeling?

There are a few studies that suggest that we need to protect between 20 and 50 percent of the ocean to achieve conservation and productivity goals. I start with 20 percent as the first milestone. It would be unrealistic to fight for 50 percent right now since only one percent is really protected.

You have said that if the world's big industrial fishing powers were to embrace marine reserves, they could change from being hunters to being shepherds of the sea. Can you give any examples of countries, or even communities, that have made that transition?

None that I know of. Some countries have made great steps forward, creating large reserves. And there are some examples of good local management. But the fishing lobbies still push for the commoditization of the ocean, where everything is focused on extracting as much as possible.

Even if the policy of maximum hunting yield were sustainable, it would still be too damaging, because removing species creates complex changes in the entire ecosystem. And these changes often come back to bite us.

What keeps you hopeful in the face on the ongoing depletion of the oceans?

Diving in a marine reserve where fish have come back. That's what gives me hope. Otherwise I would be depressed all the time. If we give the ocean some space, it will restore itself.

What's the most inspiring book on the marine environment you've read lately?

Recently I re-read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne. I love that book because, more than a century ago, he was already telling us that we were taking too much from the ocean, and he predicted ecological impacts that have since come to pass. The main character, Captain Nemo, was the first marine conservationist!

You're an advocate, an activist, a lobbyist, a scientist—which one is most important to you?

I am a scientist by training, but after ten years as a professor I left academia to become a communicator, film producer, policy wonk, and many other things. They are all important, but just being a scientist or a photographer or an economist does not get the job done. To protect the ocean we need all these different disciplines—and more—working together.

Who were your heroes as you followed your path to becoming a voice for the ocean?

The one and only Jacques Cousteau was my all-time hero. Sometimes I still ask myself, "What would Cousteau do?"

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