Merging rigorous science, adventure, and passion for the sea, Dr. Enric Sala doesn't mind making waves. His comprehensive approach to research is a bold departure from traditional marine science methodology that focuses on individual species.
"Underwater ecosystems are like airplanes," he says. "They need all of their parts to function. Who wants to travel on a plane knowing five or ten parts are missing? That's why I organise expeditions with teams who can study the entire system from microbes to sharks. It's the only way to understand the full impact humans have on these places." This unconventional approach has already catalysed the design of marine reserve networks in the Sea of Cortez and Belize.
"People started researching marine ecosystems long after they were damaged by human overfishing, pollution, coastal development, and global warming," he says. "It's time for a new approach. To know what marine systems are truly capable of we must look at the few pristine places that remain."
His 2005 expedition to the northern Line Islands, a remote archipelago in the central Pacific, did just that. "We started at an island with 10,000 people and very degraded marine life," he explains. "We continued to an island with 2,500 people, then to one with ten people, and finally to one with zero people and a virtually intact ecosystem. It was a trip back in time, from degraded to pristine." Findings from this voyage and one planned for the southern Line Islands in 2009 will aid in determining the minimum size any marine reserve protecting a coral reef must be to maximise biodiversity and recover from global threats.
Another upcoming expedition will survey the Mediterranean coast and help set conservation priorities by obtaining the first-ever baseline of marine health from Spain to Turkey. Gathering data on everything from seals to fish to algae will also provide a crucial benchmark in assessing effectiveness of all future conservation actions there.
The youngest professor at the prestigious Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a researcher at Spain's National Council for Scientific Research, Sala is determined to see his research translate into practical, real-world applications. "I don't belong to an ivory tower. My findings must reach the eyes and ears of policymakers and the public. In these times of increasing environmental degradation, I think scientists have a responsibility to use our knowledge to directly improve conservation."
Challenging popular opinion, Sala believes economic development and environmental conservation are complementary goals. As an example, he notes that "when a species becomes rare, it is worth much more alive than dead. A dead grouper can only be eaten once, but a living grouper can be seen and photographed by tourists a thousand times. It will generate far more money in the sea than on a restaurant plate."